Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Marine Reserve Expansion Shuts Out Commercial Fisheries

Longliner tuna fleet to absorb biggest loss

 

Vessels from Hawaii's longline fleet sit quietly at Pier 38 in Honolulu. The 140-vessel fleet plies the western and central regions of the Pacific, mostly for ahi tuna and swordfish. Photo Courtesy of Hawaii Seafood Council.

With the stroke of a pen on a proclamation backed by the authority of the 110-year-old Antiquities Act, President Barack Obama on August 26 created the world's largest marine reserve off the coast of Hawaii's northwestern islands.

The process leading to the controversial designation drew pods of politicians, colonies of conservationists and preservationists, schools of commercial fishermen, a siege of lobbyists, and runs of followers on both sides into a territorial showdown. It was hailed as a United States ocean policy triumph, but Hawaii's commercial fishermen – the longline tuna fishery in particular – lost a sizeable chunk of their traditional fishing grounds.

"This is a hallowed site and it deserves to be treated that way from now on," Obama said in announcing the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. "It will be preserved for future generations."

While the strand of tiny islands and atolls within Papahānaumokuākea are uninhabited, the sweep of ocean surrounding them teems with life, and is vital to native Hawaiian culture.

Originally created in 2006 by President George W. Bush and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 – the only such US site and one of only 35 worldwide - the expansion boosts the protected area from 139,797 to 582,578 square miles by extending most of the boundary to the 200-mile limit of the nation's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). It provides what supporters deem "critical protections" for pristine coral reefs, deep sea marine habitats, and important ecological resources. Researchers say the site is home to more than 7,000 species of flora and fauna, with 25 percent of its creatures found nowhere else in the world's oceans. The area is also a center of significant traditional and cultural resources for native Hawaiians, and historically contains shipwrecks and downed aircraft from the Battle of Midway, which marked a major shift in the war in favor of the Allies.

Commercial resource extraction activities, including fishing and any future mineral removal, are no longer allowed. Noncommercial fishing, such as recreational fishing and the removal of fish and other resources for native Hawaiian cultural practices, is allowed by permit, as is scientific research.

Hawaii Governor David Ige acknowledged the dissent about the fishing exclusion, but in the end, he said the expansion "strikes the right balance at this time for the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands, and it can be a model for sustainability in the other oceans of planet Earth."

Lauren Wenzel, director of NOAA's National Marine Protected Areas Center, said the US now has 1,200 marine protected areas covering 26 percent of the nation's marine waters, but most allow fishing or some other form of resource extraction. This expansion ups "no-take" areas from three to 13 percent.

Nearly all of that protected ocean is in Papahānaumokuākea, prompting commercial fishing advocates to note the imbalance, which creates an unfair impact on the longline fleet.

Supporters say the designation occurred at the perfect time, noting that it highlights the importance of protecting pristine, fragile ocean waters as the perilous effects of climate change intensify.

While most opponents agree with the need for ocean conservation efforts, they consider the decision a "perfect storm" of circumstances orchestrated to maximize effect and minimize resistance, carefully crafted to burnish Obama's legacy on ocean policy. The timing, they note, was "too perfect" and the public input process too short.

Although a group of seven prominent Hawaiians wrote to Obama on January 29, 2015 requesting the expansion of federal protection around the northwestern Hawaiian Islands first established by former President George W. Bush's executive order in 2006, not much happened – at least on the surface – until January 2016, after which the war of words, pro and con, erupted.

US Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) made an official proposal for the Papahānaumokuākea expansion on June 16 - the 10th anniversary of the original boundary designation. Two public meetings were held August 1 and 2, respectively, on Oahu and Kauai to glean public comments. Officials say those comments were overwhelmingly favorable. Hawaii Governor David Ige sent a letter to Obama on August 25, backing the expansion. Obama signed the proclamation August 26. Located in the president's home state, the decision followed directly in the wake of a week-long celebration of the National Park Service's centennial. It also occurred just prior to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's World Conservation Congress, held every four years to discuss ways to preserve the planet and hosted in 2016 by the United States for the very first time – in Hawaii.

Fishery advocates say it's no coincidence, since the IUCN lists bigeye tuna as "vulnerable" to extinction, in part due to "overfishing."

According to the Hawaii Longline Association, the fishery's 140 registered vessels are the main producers of line-caught premium quality bigeye and yellowfin tuna (known as ahi), swordfish and other open ocean fish available from Hawaii. But they target bigeye for the high prices it can fetch in local sashimi markets.

"Hawaii's fishery operates in a distinct region far away from where overfishing is occurring," notes the Hawaii Seafood Council. "Hawaii has the only longline fishery in the Pacific capable of real-time management and compliance with bigeye quota."

Even though Senator Schatz, who championed the expansion, negotiated a compromise to the existing boundary at its easternmost end, allowing fishermen from Kauai and Niihau to continue working traditional grounds inside the EEZ, longliners say it's too little, too late for them. Trollers, handliners and pole-and-line boats mostly fish within 50 nautical miles of Hawaii shores. Longliners generally operate beyond 50 nautical miles in waters managed by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, an international organization that develops management advice for fisheries in the central and western Pacific – prime fishing territory for Hawaii's longliners.

Veteran longliners and multiple boat owners Sean Martin and Jim Cook, partners in Honolulu-based Pacific Ocean Producers (POP) Fishing and Marine, say fishing outside the reserve could mean higher operating costs, more international competition, and potentially longer trips. Both are former chairs of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, which sets fishery management policies and advises the National Marine Fisheries Service on how to minimize bycatch, protect habitat and prevent overfishing. Martin also heads up the Hawaii Longline Association and serves as US representative on the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.

Noting that he has plenty of experience plowing through the ocean in 60-foot boats, Martin says he "knows what the guys on the water are going through on a daily basis."

According to the Hawaii Seafood Council and Hawaii Longline Association, the fishery is well-managed by US standards and likely one of the most highly regulated longline fisheries in the world through quotas and fishing area restrictions. It's also unique, being a year-round domestic fishery feeding a domestic market (about 30 percent of fish landed in Hawaii is exported to mainland US), providing fresh quality fish for sashimi and sushi quality tuna. Martin said they can also "sell almost everything we catch," including non-target species with a market, among them opah and mahimahi.

About 120 longline vessels fish each year for tuna – primarily bigeye – using deep-set longline gear, and another 20 vessels ply the sea for swordfish from January to June using shallow-set longline gear, then switch to tuna and deep-set gear for the remainder of the year. They catch about 2/3 of their fish outside the US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) more than 200 miles offshore in international waters, the other third within the EEZ (50 to 200 miles offshore in federally-managed waters).

Longliners hauled in 27 million pounds of fish in 2013, with a dockside value of $85.4 million. Fishermen say the expansion restrictions would reduce their catch by 2.16 million pounds, worth $6.83 million, and traveling farther to avoid the reserve could jeopardize the freshness and quality of the catch.

Conservationists called those numbers "misleading" and labeled suggestions that fishermen must pursue a pelagic fishery resource in a specific location as "false logic." They and many market analysts note that the fishery is quota-based, meaning longliners can still catch the same amount of fish as they have before, therefore experiencing very little impact on their bottom lines. Finally, when they reach their ahi quotas early, the longliners can purchase quotas from other regions and continue fishing. Environmentalists say this allows the tuna hunters to use federal rules to sidestep catch limits and overfish.

According to the Hawaii Longline Association and Hawaii Seafood Council, the fishery is world-class and eminently sustainable, no matter what.

This map indicates the original and new boundaries of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument surrounding the northwestern islands and atolls of Hawaii. President Barack Obama expanded the site by more than 442,000 square miles, creating the world's largest marine reserve and shutting commercial fishermen out of federal waters from the shore to 200 miles out. Map courtesy NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

Under an international agreement, the longline fleet can haul in 3,500 metric tons of tuna annually. In 2014, NMFS adopted quota-sharing agreements with the Pacific territories. In 2015, the fleet reached its quota in early August. This season, they landed the limit by July 22.

Last year, they paid $200,000 to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands for 1,000 tons of its 2,000-ton quota, and another $200,000 to Guam for another 1,000 tons. In April, the Hawaii Longline Association signed an agreement to pay CNMI $250,000 for 1,000 tons each of the next three years.

The money is deposited into the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund, which the territories use for approved fishery development projects, among them fish markets, processing facilities, training programs and loan programs.

Longliners say the three-year pact with CNMI gives them and the territory some needed stability. It also offers some flexibility and access to certain waters. Because ultimately, longline fishery representatives say it's not as much about potentially lost money as it is about additional government limits on the places they can fish as they continue to get pushed out of traditional fishing grounds.

 
 

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