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Environmental groups oppose ahi increases

Updated: 
October 29, 2014 - 5:32am

Hawaii’s longline fleet may be rejoicing over a new opportunity to catch ahi, but a coalition of environmental groups are not on board with the increased catch.

Commercial fishermen who have traditionally exhausted their quota of bigeye tuna a month before peak holiday demand can continue fishing under a new agreement that allows them access to quota from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and Guam.

Good news for the flow of sashimi that crosses Hawaii tables around the New Year. Bad news for the fish, some claim.

“We’ve lost commercial fishing stocks in the past because of actions like these,” Earthjustice lawyer David Henkin said. “Scientists say we need to cut back 36 percent from recent fishing levels. … The United States should set an example for responsible fishing, not make a mockery of international protections for imperiled bigeye.”

Earthjustice is examining legal options and is likely to take The National Marine Fisheries Service to court for approving the rule change, Henkin said.

Catherine Kilduff, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, dubbed the change “a cynical workaround” that worsens the plight of species already in trouble.

NMFS officials, meanwhile, say the provisions place sensible caps on overall fishing effort. The benefit to U.S. longliners of having the additional quota was weighed against a thorough examination of impacts to the fishery, said Mike Tosatto, regional administrator for the NOAA Fisheries Service.

“Everything we have put in place is consistent with international law,” Tosatto said.

The U.S. quota is set by international law at 3,763 metric tons for longline-caught bigeye tuna in the western and central Pacific Ocean. The new rule establishes quotas of 2,000 metric tons each for Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianas. The territories can then sell the rights to 1,000 tons of their quota, meaning the U.S. fleet would have an additional total of 3,000 metric tons available.

But NMFS doesn’t anticipate the overall catch of bigeye will increase by more than 1,000 metric tons, partly because U.S. vessels can enter into only one territorial fishing agreement at a time and fishing limits will be reviewed on a yearly basis. The rule also mandates that part of the income from transferring quota be used to develop fisheries projects in the territories.

In documents supporting the establishment of quotas for the territories and the provision for transferring some of that quota, NMFS says the larger international plan to end overfishing of the species will not be undermined. Henkin begs to differ.

“They’re basically inventing a quota for the territories, then shifting the quota so fishermen can fish here,” he said. “The fleet is going to fish out of Hawaii and land them in Hawaii.”

Killduff said the number of longline hooks set in Hawaii fishing grounds to snag the migratory pelagic fish increased fourfold from 1996 to 2008. Marjorie Ziegler, executive director of the Conservation Council for Hawaii, said she’s worried about impacts not just to the tuna but to whales, sharks and sea birds as well.

“The world’s tuna are in trouble,” she said. “They’re large predators that are just being overfished. I love ahi sushi. We all contribute to the problem if we eat it. We’re getting to a place where we all need to cut back. Bycatch is also an issue. If we increase fishing effort, we increase the bycatch.”

But a NMFS analysis published this month found that Hawaii’s longline fishery was not having a significant impact on humpbacks, sperm whales or false killer whales. Fishing effort under the new rules are not expected to jeopardize other endangered species like sea turtles, according to NMFS documents.

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