The discussions over several hot topics at the council’s most recent meeting (June 28-July 1) often erupted in harsh exchanges. Most times, the sparring occurred between Peter Young, a council member from Hawai`i whose positions are often at odds with the council majority, and Manny Duenas, council member from Guam. Duenas has become a favorite of council executive director Kitty Simonds, who often sends him to meetings around the world to represent the council’s interests. His frequent rants – against purse seiners, against the U.S. military, against environmentalists, against the National Marine Fisheries Service – have become a feature of council meetings.
Young, on the other hand, vainly attempted to rein in the council when its recommendations for fisheries management were viewed by him as exceeding what was prudent or supported by science. His lone partisan on the council was Laura Thielen, who has a seat at the table by virtue of her position as head of the Hawai`i Department of Land and Natural Resources.
In the end, over Young’s strenuous objections, the council voted to recommend no change in the total allowable catch for bottomfish in the coming catch year (starting September 1); to ask the National Marine Fisheries Service to bless chartering arrangements in the territories that would allow them to assign part of their quotas for increasingly distressed bigeye tuna stocks to vessels based elsewhere in the United States; and to reiterate its strong objections to the inscription of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Sam Pooley, head of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, began his presentation on bottomfish with an abject apology. “On behalf of the Division of Aquatic Resources and the National Marine Fisheries Service, I apologize to the council and to fishermen for basically mis-forecasting when the [bottomfish] fishery should be closed. We know this has an impact on the boats. Frankly, our staffs are pretty aghast. We made a mistake in data processing. We’d like to say it will never happen again, but forecasting a [Total Allowable Catch] is always difficult.”
What Pooley was referring to was the closure of the 2009-2010 bottomfish season before fishers had reached the limit for the year. When the closure occurred (April 20), the actual catch stood at 208,412 pounds. With a TAC limit of 254,050 pounds, fishers were shorted roughly 46,000 pounds – about 18 percent.
Pooley outlined several factors that contributed to the early closure. “First, always, data reporting lags,” he noted. “Fishermen are only required to report on a monthly basis, but we have to do projections [of future catches] on a weekly basis…. Two, there are potential issues with forecasting itself. Nobody ever knows, including individual fishermen, who’s going fishing when…. We’re trying to think ahead at least two weeks, sometimes a month, about what fishing will be like…. So there’s inherent problems… exacerbated by double-counting” about 10,000 pounds of the catch.
But, Pooley pointed out, there was “one slight bit of good news” resulting from under-shooting the target this year: total catch for the three years in which bottomfish TACs have been set now comes in a little bit under the target, offsetting the amount by which TACs were exceeded the first two years.
The council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee recommended that the TAC for 2010-2011 be set at 244,000 pounds – a level that would carry with it a 29 percent risk of overfishing in 2011. On the other hand, the council’s Plan Team pushed for a TAC of 269,000 pounds, with a 49 percent risk of overfishing. (Overfishing occurs when fish are removed at a rate that jeopardizes the fishery’s long-term productivity.)
In the end, the council approved a motion that the TAC for bottomfish be set for 2010-2011 at the same level it was for the previous year: 254,050 pounds, with a 33 percent risk of overfishing. But before getting to the vote, an at-times heated exchange developed, sparked by a comment from Young.
Young, arguing against the proposed TAC, raised the point that under the federal law governing fisheries management, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, councils are not allowed to approve of catch limits that exceed the recommendations of their Scientific and Statistical Committees, “so if we approve this, we’ll be violating the law.”
Fred Tucher, general counsel to the NMFS Pacific Islands Regional Office, replied that this requirement applied to Annual Catch Limits, or ACLs. “I want to point out that an ACL is not a TAC… They can be the same, but not necessarily so…. What you have here is not an ACL.” The difference is subtle: An ACL, which must be set by the Scientific and Statistical Committee following a rigorous protocol, will be used starting in 2011 to manage the fishery; councils may not exceed the ACL in setting catch limits. The SSC’s recommendations on a TAC, on the other hand, is not developed in the same way.
The following day, Young made a motion to rescind the decision. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, he said, places “a precautionary obligation … on fishery councils to protect the resources, so a rogue council does not exceed the level [recommended by] its science advisors…. I believe our obligations are clear and, at least to me, the intent of Congress is clear: Councils can’t set fishing levels higher than the recommendations of our scientists. But that’s what we did, and that’s why I made the motion to rescind.”
A raucous discussion followed, with Duenas declaring his resentment of Young’s “characterization of this as a rogue council.”
As several members called for the question, Young explained that he said “Congress was trying to protect against a rogue council. I wasn’t saying this was a rogue council.”
His efforts went down in flames. He and Thielen alone voted in favor of the motion. Eleven other council members opposed it.
As every island resident knows, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day is peak season for ahi. Last year the longline fleet was dangerously close to reaching its quota for bigeye tuna, source of the choicest ahi sashimi, in the productive seas of the western Pacific right in the middle of the peak holiday market. The quota was reached just a couple of days before New Year’s Eve, and the much feared ahi closure had no effect. On January 1, a new quota year began, and the pressure was off – for the next 11 months, at any rate.
As of July 1, the Honolulu NMFS office estimated that 1,919 tons of bigeye had been caught against the annual quota of 3,763 metric tons set by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC). If bigeye were to continue to be caught at the same rate in the second half of the year, the quota would be reached once more just days short of the new year. At present, NMFS is estimating the fishery will be shut down around December 1.
But under federal rules for the bigeye fishery, it’s unlikely the longline operators as a whole will face any meaningful limit on their catches for years to come. The rules, approved last December, allow the 11 vessels holding longline permits in both Hawai`i and American Samoa to land fish in Hawai`i that will not be counted against the Hawai`i quota, so long as the fish are caught outside the 200-mile exclusive economic zone around Hawai`i.
Last October, the council recommended that the territorial limits for bigeye tuna be set at 2,000 metric tons each. At its most recent meeting, in recognition that none of the territories has the capacity to catch this volume of fish, it recommended that NMFS develop “federal domestic chartering permits or similar mechanisms to provide appropriate oversight” of charter agreements between the territories and U.S.-flagged fleets. It also proposed a recommendation to NMFS that it set a limit of 750 metric tons on each territory’s allocations of bigeye to charter vessels. This followed up on a council recommendation last year that charter vessels need to make only three landings a year in the territory – averaging 4 tons per landing – in order to qualify as being an “integral” part in the development of the territory’s own fishery. Even then, the three landings would be required only when the island territory’s infrastructure permitted.
Young objected. “I question how anyone says how 12 metric tons [three landings] of a total of 2,000 metric tons is an integral part of the fishery. If anyone could explain it, that would be profound…. Are you suggesting that this is consistent with the commission’s action, saying that these charter agreements and the vessels are an integral part of the domestic fleet?”
That opened the door for Duenas. “Knowing the three island fisheries, which you’re not aware [of], Guam has had 30 years of transshipment [of landed fish]. … Guam has the infrastructure. Six flights a day to Japan, if not more,” he said. As for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, he said, “they have a two-prop plane. They can’t even handle their medical people… And don’t expect a fresh longliner to unload in American Samoa unless there’s a flight that week.”
“Don’t put your two cents in something you’re unaware about,” Duenas scolded Young. “You’d rather see purse seiners catch bigeye as juveniles … and freeze it at forty cents a pound than a bigeye that would be put on plane and shipped to Hawai`i or someplace else at four dollars a pound.”
Both motions passed, over Young’s objections.
Changes to the Fishing Year: To avoid the prospect of an ahi-free New Year’s party, council staff looked closely at what effect changing the catch year might have. The same amount of tuna could be taken, but the start-end dates would not coincide with the calendar year. The analysis turned up some surprising results.
If the longliners were to target bigeye in the Eastern Pacific as soon as they reached their quota of bigeye in the Western Pacific, they could realize a substantial increase in their revenue, of up to $7 million a year (for a catch year starting September 1). On the other hand, if the catch year began in June, the net effect would be a loss of $146,000.
The number of days that the fleet would be closed out of the Western Pacific varied widely as well. The current arrangement – with the calendar year coinciding with the catch year – accounted for the fewest closure days (45). If the Eastern Pacific was fished during that same time, the total net loss in revenues was estimated at $1.725 million. The catch year that was most lucrative (the one beginning September 1) was also the one that had the most Western Pacific closure days: 99.
The council made no recommendation on any change to the fishing year. Instead, staff were instructed to seek out the advice of the fishing community.
Papahanaumokuakea UNESCO Designation
On the last day of the council meeting, executive director Simonds raised the topic of the proposed inscription by UNESCO of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument onto its list of World Heritage Sites at its meeting in Brazil, scheduled for July 25 through August 3.
Simonds reminded the council that as early as 2007, in commenting on the proposed designation, the council had “cautioned against this being designated a site… What happens when these sites are designated is full-on tourism. Exactly what we didn’t want to see happen up there.”
Also, she said, the council objected in its comments on the failure to fully consult Hawaiian people about the proposal. “Why I brought this up,” she said, “is, I wanted to know if the council still maintains its objections to this designation.”
Thielen took exception to Simonds’ characterizations. “As the representative of one of the monument management teams … I need to correct for the record some of the statements on this,” she said. “We have been working with a number of people. To say the Hawaiian people were not consulted is not correct. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the state representative of native Hawaiian interests, had set up early on in the process a kupuna group of advisory practitioners. And that group, after extensive discussion, totally supported the nomination. OHA worked with us step by step through the nomination process along with our federal partners…”
Simonds insisted that at meetings of the National Marine Sanctuary program – “not here, but in DC” – “there is a push to have tourism up there. Yes,” she told Thielen, that has occurred “since the monument was designated. When it happened, the whole idea was no-touch. Now you’ve developed a management plan…”
Thielen broke in: “The management plan does very much limit tourism to specific areas, specific activities,” she said. If the council is concerned that safeguards against excessive tourism are weak, she added, “then the council should take the position that the monument managers should comply with the monument plan.”
Duenas then related an experience he had had while traveling for the council. “I had the opportunity to attend a special recognition for Mr. [Jean-Michel] Cousteau in Washington, D.C., where I actually cried. Because he said out in public, and he’s the grandfather of this whole idea [for designation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a monument], that there will be three million tourists. You can ask the people there. I went to each one, and said, ‘you’re taking out eight fishing boats and putting in three million tourists.’ I actually got drunk and cried…. [O]ne of the participants in this whole exercise, a major player, was able to say this publicly, to share the wealth and experience of World War II, we’re going to tie in Pearl Harbor to Midway with three million tourists a year.”
Thielen attempted to address Duenas’ remarks. “Manny, you talk a lot about how the native people should have a say. Again, the kupuna group, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, sat down and looked over this very closely. What they felt was that having designation as a cultural heritage site, not just a resource site, would provide an opportunity to showcase their history and culture in that area.”
The management plan includes a permitting process for monument access for any purpose. “It has to go through not just a federal process, but a state process as well.… There’s a tremendous amount of transparency, tremendous amount of involvement. I would welcome a position by this council that says you support the management plan and the restrictions on any tourism activity and that you would encourage the monument managers to make sure if the heritage nomination goes through to keep those restrictions in place and not to undo those in the face of any pressure that may come forward.”
The council then considered a formal motion that it “reiterate its concern about the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands UNESCO designation process … that calls into question the transparency of the process to include public participation, the need to clearly provide the purpose and need or objective of the designation, and the role of the National Park Service administrative authorities and related jurisdictional issues.”
Thielen spoke against the motion, noting again the transparency of the management process and the involvement of OHA in developing it. The management plan “places strict limits on activities that can occur,” she said. “If we were to open it up to activities beyond the scope of the management plan, we’d be required under state law to do a new [environmental impact statement] before we could issue any new permits…. I ask the council not to support this motion.”
Duenas repeated his concerns. “You didn’t give consultation to the council,” he said, addressing Thielen. “Eight fishing boats [lost]. One of those fishermen happened to be a native Hawaiian. Only five active boats up there. If you look at amount of fish that’s going to be consumed, and again I’m very disturbed – this monument was designated to be protected. No fish should be consumed by any inhabitant, scientist…. Why is it [that] it’s okay to play with fish, consume them if you’re a scientist or resident…. I don’t care what OHA has to say, what the state of Hawai`i has to say…. I don’t care what kind of management plan you have.”
The motion passed. Thielen and Young were the sole votes opposed.