Fisheries Council Staff Envisions Return Of Commercial Bottomfishing to NWHI

posted in: July 2017 | 0

Western Pacific Fishery Management Council (Wespac) executive director Kitty Simonds isn’t just pushing for commercial longlining to return to the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument expansion area established by President Barack Obama late last year. She’s made it clear she’s also hoping the Trump administration will open the door for bottomfish fishing to return to the waters within the original monument area, which extends 50 nautical miles around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Simonds and staffer Eric Kingma have suggested at recent meetings that such a scenario is possible since the council never moved to repeal any of its fishing regulations affected by the monument’s establishment and since President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April calling for the review of all large national monuments established in the last 20 years.

In 2010, the National Marine Fisheries Service paid more than $2 million to seven NWHI bottomfish permit holders so they would leave the fishery, which was set to close in June 2011 under the terms of President George W. Bush’s 2006 order establishing the monument.

Should U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke decide to roll back the commercial fishing prohibitions in both the monument and the expansion area, “it’s not like you would see an armada of fishing vessels to rape and pillage the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands,” Kingma told the NWHI Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve Advisory Council (RAC) at its May meeting. He noted that the current fishing regulations retain protected species zones that would prohibit longlining within 50 nautical miles of the islands. To catch bottomfish, a permit would be required and harvesting of precious corals and lobsters would still be banned, he said.

“We’ve stated a position that we feel that the fishing provisions of the monument designations were unnecessary, inconsistent with best available science, inconsistent with Congress,” he told the RAC.

Given the current ongoing review of monuments by the Interior Department, Simonds last month suggested to Wespac’s Scientific and Statistical Committee that it hold off on making any recommendations for regulations for non-commercial fishing within the monument expansion area, which the council has been tasked with doing.

“We could wait two months to see what happens with the review of the monument,” she told the committee. “I’m sure a decision will be made in July. They’ve already made a decision on Bears Ears [a monument in Utah, which the administration said it plans to shrink]. They didn’t do away with the monument. The council is not asking to do away with the monument. We’re asking to do away with the marine fishing regulations. … We could have bottomfish fishing!”

The committee agreed to wait, as did the full council when it met a week later. Michael Tosatto, head of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Pacific Islands Regional Office, said at the council’s meeting that his office would probably not evaluate any fishing regulations for the expansion area until after the Interior Department review was complete.

Customary Exchange

Before the council voted to defer making any recommendations for non-commercial fishing regulations, it heard testimony from Keola Lindsey of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). Lindsey expressed his agency’s opposition to any rules that would allow for cost recovery of fish caught in the expansion area that were distributed via a process called ‘customary exchange.’

Customary exchange is the term used to describe the cultural practice of sharing fish with family, friends, or the local community and being compensated for costs such as gas or ice. It’s allowed in marine national monuments established recently in American Samoa and the Marianas.

Lindsey said that OHA agreed with the idea that native Hawaiian practices could be covered by a non-commercial fishing permit and supported the practice of customary exchange — with cost recovery — in other areas of the Pacific. However, it did not support it being applied in Hawai`i at this time.

“We have concerns about how it would actually be implemented here,” he said.

Simonds asked him, “The reason for y’all not agreeing with customary exchange is the possibility of sales that people would not be able to monitor?”

“That’s part of it,” Lindsey replied, adding, “Generally under federal and state law, the idea of perpetuating a practice comes with clear caveats that there be no commercial aspect to that. … It’s unclear in our mind how that separation can be maintained.”

Nothing to See Here …

One of the main arguments for the expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument last year was that pushing commercial longlining outside the 200-mile U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands would somehow benefit protected species.

But Wespac’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) remained skeptical. So at its March meeting, it asked the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) to look into the impacts the monument expansion is likely to have on protected species, given that commercial longliners will now have fish on the high seas.

By June, PIFSC had it’s answer: First, according to a Wespac briefing report to the SSC, the center pointed out how difficult it is to analyze the effects of fishing vessels shifting their effort elsewhere, since it is impossible to predict where the shifted effort will occur and since there is no obvious scenario for modeling where that might be.  And even if actual post-expansion fishing effort and bycatch data were available, “the causes for bycatch changes will remain uncertain because there is such huge annual variability in catch,” the report stated.

That said, PIFSC ultimately estimated that “if effort was displaced or even increased substantially and distributed uniformly throughout the fishing grounds, then albatross bycatch would decrease,” the report stated.

The center noted that an albatross study also showed significant increases in bycatch with effort closer to Northwestern Hawaiian Island nesting sites and “that the average albatross bycatch rate inside the area closed by the monument expansion is much higher than the average for the rest of the fishery, though perhaps not so for particular sub-areas in particular years.” Albatross are protected species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

In its report, Wespac staff requested that the committee suggest potential scenarios for PIFSC to analyze, such as “all effort redistributes south of the Hawai`i Archipelago’” or “all effort relocates to east of 150 degrees.”

When it came time to discuss the matter, however, committee chair Paul Callaghan announced that this wouldn’t happen. He had been informed that there was “not enough data to provide a good presentation” and that the committee would revisit the matter at its next meeting.

‘Less Productive’

While bigeye tuna catches this year haven’t matched the record-breaking rates seen by the Hawai`i longline fleet over the past two years, the fishery is still expected to exceed its international quota of about 3,100 metric tons and to require quota transfers from at least two other Pacific island territories to be able to keep fishing through the end of the year. (This despite being pushed out of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone surrounding the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands by last year’s expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.)

While the fishing grounds still appear to be productive enough to sustain a robust local bigeye fishery, that may not be the case in the coming decades. An article published in Global Change Biology last year suggests that within this century, climate change may significantly alter the habitat zone of the North Pacific where photosynthesis occurs, from the surface down to about 200 meters. The article’s authors, Phoebe Woodworth-Jefcoats and Jeffrey Polovina of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and the University of Hawai`i’s Jeffrey Drazen, conclude that climate change is projected to reduce carrying capacity and redistribute species richness in the North Pacific, where the Hawai`i longline fleet spends some of its time.

As reported in previous issues of Environment Hawai`i, Polovina (now retired from PIFSC) has predicted that zones of lower productivity, where there is less zooplankton (i.e., fish food), will grow because of warming waters This will eventually lead to fewer large fish species in the Pacific. In the article published last year, he and his co-authors state that the North Pacific’s potential carrying capacity, and in turn fishery yield, is projected to drop by about two to five percent per decade. (For more on this, see our April 2016 issue.)

“Additionally, based on changing thermal habitat alone, species richness across much of the subtropics is projected to decline by up to four tuna and billfish species by the end of the century,” they wrote. “Fishery managers can use these projections to place current yields and management actions in a broader climate-based context. For example, early warning thresholds for changing catch composition or yield could be based on projected climate impacts. Such strategic management plans would ensure that the ecosystem is not further stressed by unsustainable removals.”

Perhaps influenced by the work of Polovina and colleagues, the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council last month directed its staff to ask the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) — an organization that prepares the tropical tuna stock assessment for the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission — how it is incorporating climate change information into tuna stock assessments. The council also encouraged Pacific island representatives at SPC meetings to request that climate change impacts be evaluated and incorporated into regional stock assessments and marine spatial planning efforts.

Wespac outreach specialist Sylvia Spalding noted that the annual mean chlorophyll concentration, an indicator of ocean productivity, in the Pacific reached a record low last year. The previous record was set in 2005.

“The ocean seems to be becoming less productive,” she said.

A 2008 study by Polovina found that the area of these less productive waters may be expanding in the North Pacific, and in 2015, that area was larger than in previous years, according to the council’s 2015 Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation (SAFE) report. The council chose not to include an evaluation of this low-productivity zone in its 2016 SAFE report because, according to Spalding, cloud cover inhibited the collection of good data on chlorophyll levels.

Woodworth-Jefcoats, who sits on the council’s Marine Planning and Climate Change Committee, told Environment Hawai`i that she hopes that by using better satellites or by combining satellite data, changes in lower-productivity zones in the Pacific will again be included in the council’s annual evaluation of climate changes.

You Snooze, You Lose

Having failed to meet two deadlines to submit a list of nominees for two expiring at-large seats on the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, the state of Hawai`i will lose at least one of its four members who are not government officials.

The three-year terms of Hawai`i island charter fisherman Frederick “McGrew” Rice and O`ahu attorney and part-time commercial fisherman Edwin Ebisui end on August 10. Michael Goto, manager of the United Fishing Agency, Ltd., and Dean Sensui are Hawai`i’s two obligatory regional members whose terms expire in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Rice’s and Ebisui’s seats were the only at-large seats expiring this year. NOAA received timely nomination lists from American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). But Hawai`i’s list of nominees did not arrive until after the extended deadline of April 28.

NOAA was to announce the appointments by June 27. It had not done so by press time.

Because CNMI included Ebisui in its list of at-large nominees, it’s possible he could continue to serve on the council for a third and final consecutive term. Rice’s seat, however, will be filled by someone from American Samoa or the CNMI.

At the council’s meeting last month, Bruce Anderson, head of the state Division of Aquatic Resources, was unable to explain how the state had whiffed.

Had the state submitted its list on time, it seems Rice would still have been out. He asked Anderson why his name was taken off the nomination list forwarded to Gov. David Ige. Rice argued that he knows more about protected species “than most of the council members in this room and I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong at the meetings.”

Anderson said he did not know whose names were included in the state’s list to NOAA. The governor’s office had not responded by press time to a request for those names and also did not answer why it failed to submit the list in time. NOAA’s Michael Tosatto stated that he had not seen the list, but also that he did not doubt Rice was absent from it.

“It was so annoying,” said Wespac executive director Kitty Simonds. “Hawai`i is probably going to lose two at-large seats that they held from the very beginning, 40 years ago,” she said.

“I’m not aware of the governor’s process. I do think it was unfortunate that the deadlines were missed. It was not because they didn’t have a draft. I don’t know why there were some delays,” Anderson said.

“You and Ed have done a terrific job,” Anderson told Rice. “I wholeheartedly support doing whatever we can to reinstate Hawai`i’s representation on the council.”

Sensui added, “The loss of McGrew, needless to say, it’s a terrible loss. He’s the only commercial fishermen in our small cadre. He’s from a fishing family. That the state’s administration would be so lax to miss something so important, to me it’s mind boggling. … We’re not happy with it to say the least.”

The council is made up of four designated federal officials (from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Coast Guard, and the State Department), four designated state officials (one each from Guam, CNMI, American Samoa, and Hawai`i), and four appointed members representing each region. The final four at-large members can be from any region.

—Teresa Dawson

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