For the second year in a row, Hawai‘i longline fishermen are on course to hit their annual limit for bigeye tuna. And again, it’s much earlier than expected. The island’s longline fleet will close in Western and Central pacific waters this Friday, and larger vessels in the Eastern region will also be halted a few days later. HPR’s Molly Solomon has more.
Starting Friday, the productive fishing grounds west of the Hawaiian Islands will be off limits for Hawai‘i’s longline fishing fleet. That’s more than three weeks earlier than fishery officials had predicted.
Sean Martin is president of the Hawai‘i Longline Association. They represent the 140 vessels that will be affected by the closure.
“Having less area to explore and trying to find an area of productive fishing becomes more complicated because a large swath of the ocean is no longer available,” said Martin.
But that closure isn’t expected to last long. Thanks to a federal rule that allows Hawaii’s longline fleet to attribute its catch to U.S. territories in the Pacific. The same tactic was used last year when the quota was met early in August. Martin expects the fleet to be up and running again sometime next month.
“It’s a matter of weeks, not a matter of months,” said Martin. “But I don’t have a projection.”
The bigeye tuna limit, set by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, is 3,554 metric tons for Hawaii fishermen this year. Martin says hitting the quota early is largely due to an exceptional fishing year. He says, similar to last year, boats are catching more and bigger fish.
“Our catch rates are up as much as 40 percent last year,” he said. “So what we’ve experienced in the last two years is the highest catch rates the fishery has ever seen.”
But environmentalists say two big years don’t discount the need to protect against overfishing. Amanda Nickson is the Director of Global Tuna Conservation for the Pew Charitable Trusts. She says that line of thinking doesn’t reflect the larger picture of depleted tuna stocks.
“When you are looking at a fish population that crosses a large range, you may on occasion witness what appears to be a larger number of fish in a certain part of that range,” Nickson explained. “But that is not reflective of the overall health of the population and it’s not born out by the stock assessment.”
Nickson says the quotas are put in place for a reason, with a goal of long term sustainability.
“The notion of responsible management says we should be reigning in these catches, not seeking to increase them,” said Nickson. “And we should be looking at how we actually rebuild that stock so that there can be a healthy industry into the future that is not seeing their quota used up at an ever earlier time each year.”
And while it’s unclear what the impact will be on local prices, the global market for tuna isn’t likely to be affected. Hawai‘i’s longline fishery reels in less than 2 percent of the bigeye caught in the western and central Pacific.