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Overview of the Fisheries- Pelagics

Tuna fisheries in the Pacific Ocean as a whole catch about 3.3 million mt of fish, with US fisheries catching about 5 percent of the total. Most of the catch is taken by fleets of high seas longliners and purse seiners from countries such as Japan, Taiwan, Korea and the nations of Central and South America. More recently, Pacific Island countries such as Papua New Guinea and Kiribati have grown in importance in terms of their large scale purse-seine and longline fisheries. Small scale artisanal longlining is also conducted in Pacific Island countries like Samoa and in South America, where there are thousands of small scale longline vessels fishing in coastal waters.

The largest US pelagic fisheries in terms of tonnage of fish landed is the US purse-seine fishery, with catches of tuna amounting to about 250,000 mt (mostly skipjack and yellowfin). The US fleet of albacore trollers, based at West Coast ports, amounts to about 400 vessels, fishing primarily in the North Pacific and landing about 12,000 to 14,000 mt. Some vessels from this fleet also fish seasonally for albacore in the South Pacific, catching up to 1,500 mt.

Of all fisheries managed under the Pacific Pelagic Fishery Ecosystem Plan (FEP), the Hawaii-based longline fishery is the largest accounting for the majority of Hawaii’s commercial pelagic landings. Troll fishing for pelagics is the most common recreational fishery in the islands of the Western Pacific Region (American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, Northern Mariana Islands and US Pacific remote island area). The definition of recreational fishing, however, continues to be problematic in a region where many fishermen who are fishing primarily for non-commercial purposes may sell their fish to cover their expenses.

American Samoa 

The harvest of pelagic fish has been a part of the way of life in the Samoan archipelago since the islands were first settled some 3,500 years ago. Subsistence fishing continues to the present, but the importance of pelagic fisheries as a source of income and employment is increasing. Modes of pelagic fishing in American Samoa include:

Small-scale longline: Most participants in the small-scale domestic longline fishery are indigenous American Samoans with vessels under 50 ft in length, most of which are alia boats under 40 ft in length. The stimulus for American Samoa’s commercial fishermen to shift from troll or handline gear to longline gear in the mid-1990s was the fishing success of 28′ alia catamarans that engaged in longline fishing in the EEZ around Independent Samoa. Following this example, the fishermen in American Samoa deploy a short monofilament longline, with an average of 350 hooks per set, from a hand-powered reel. The predominant catch is albacore tuna, which is marketed to the local tuna canneries. Participation in the small-scale longline fishery has significantly reduced in recent years, with only one alia longliner operating in 2016, from a historical high of around 60 vessels in 2002.

American longlinerLarge-scale longline: American Samoa’s domestic longline fishery expanded rapidly in 2001 with the influx of large (>50 ft. overall length) conventional monohull vessels similar to the type used in the Hawaii-based longline fishery. These vessels were larger, had a greater range and were able to set more hooks per trip than the average alia vessel. Albacore tuna (Thunnus alalunga) is the target species in the longline fishery. While the smallest vessels (≤ 40 ft) average 350 hooks per set, a vessel over 50 ft can set 1500 – 2500 hooks and have a greater fishing range and capacity for storing fish (8–40 metric tons) as compared with (0.5–2 metric tons) small-scale vessels. Larger vessels are also outfitted with hydraulically powered reels to set and haul mainline, and with modern electronic equipment for navigation, communications, and fish finding. Most are presently being operated to freeze albacore onboard, rather than to land chilled fish.

In 2005, regulations came into effect establishing a limited entry program for the American Samoa longline fishery. Permits are issued in four vessel classes based on vessel length. Upon initiation of the initial permit application and issuance process, only sixty permits were approved and issued by NMFS.

A record number of hooks, over 14,250,000, were set by American Samoa-based longline vessels during 2006 and more than 12 million pounds of pelagic species were landed. Since then, the catch and effort in the fishery has reduced.  The 2015 landings were approximately 4.7 million lbs, consisting mainly of four tuna species – albacore, yellowfin, skipjack and bigeye – which when combined with other tuna species made up 95% of the total landings. Albacore made up 77% of the tuna species. Wahoo, swordfish and blue marlin made up most of the non-tuna species landings.

Distant-water purse seine fishery: The largest US fishery in terms of tonnage of fish landed is the U.S. purse-seine fishery. US purse seine vessels land their catches at canneries based in American Samoa or transship their catch out of foreign ports in the WCPO. Skipjack tuna or aku (Katsuwonus pelamis) makes up 70-85 percent of the total western and central Pacific (WCPO) purse seine fishery landings with yellowfin accounting for 15-30 percent. The US purse seine fleet operating in the WCPO uses large nets to capture tuna near the ocean surface, in free-swimming schools and around fish aggregation devices (FADs) deployed by the fleet. Most of the fishing activity by U.S. purse seine vessels occurs in areas between 5° N and 10° S latitude and 150° E and 170° W longitude in the EEZ waters of PNG, the Federated States of Micronesia and other Pacific island nations. During El Nino events, however, these vessels are known to shift their fishing activity to the equatorial central Pacific. Fishing in the EPO by US vessels has also increased in recent years.

The majority of the purse seine catch in the WCPO is taken by the distant water fishing nations fleets of Japan, Korea, Chinese Taipei and the U.S. The total number of vessels fishing in the WCPO for the past 20 years ranged between 200 – 250, but now is around 300 vessels. The number of US purse seine vessels in the WCPO had been steadily declining since the late 1990s. In 2015, 39 US purse seine vessel operated. In accordance with international treaties the US fleet may have 40 purse seiners in the WCPO region.

Distant-water jig albacore fishery: Domestic albacore jig vessels also supply tuna to the canneries in American Samoa. From 1985 to the late 1990s, about 50-60 US vessels have participated in the high-seas troll fishery for albacore. This fishery occurs seasonally (December through April) in international waters at 35°-40° S latitude. The vessels range in length from 50 to 120 feet, with the average length about 75 feet. They operate with crews of 3-5 and are capable of freezing 45-90 tons of fish. In recent years, participation in the high seas jig fishery in the South Pacific numbered less than 10 vessels.

Troll and handline fishery: In 2015, there were around 20 American Samoa troll vessels actively landing pelagic species including both alia vessels and monohulls. Recreational fishing purely for sport or pleasure is uncommon in American Samoa. Most fishermen normally harvest pelagic species for subsistence or commercial sale. However, tournament fishing for pelagic species began in American Samoa in the 1980s, and continues today attracting off-island participants. In 2016, American Samoa-based troll vessel landings were around 37,000 lbs comprised of mostly of wahoo (13,097 lbs; 35%)  skipjack (9,817 lbs; 28 percent) and yellowfin (9,492 lbs; 25 percent) tunas; other top troll landings categories including mahi mahi and other miscellaneous species.

Guam

Guam’s pelagic fisheries consist of primarily small, recreational, trolling boats that are either towed to boat launch sites or berthed in marinas and fish only within local waters and occasionally in the adjacent US EEZ waters around the Northern Mariana Islands.

Domestic annual pelagic landings in Guam have varied widely, with recent catches around 900,000 lbs of pelagic species. Landings consist primarily of five major species: mahimahi, wahoo,or skipjack tuna, yellowfin tuna , and Pacific blue marlin. Other minor pelagic species caught include rainbow runner, great barracuda, kawakawa, and dogtooth tuna. There were 372 boats involved in Guam’s pelagic fishery in 2015, relatively high for the time-series, but 25% lower than that the highest participation recorded in 2013. A majority of fishing boats are less than 10 m (33 ft) in length and are usually owner-operated by fishermen who earn a living outside of fishing. Most fishermen sell a portion of their catch at one time or another and it is difficult to make a distinction between recreational, subsistence, and commercial fishers. A small (~5%) but economically significant segment of the pelagic group is made up of marina-berthed charter boats that are operated primarily by full-time captains and crews.

Hawaii 

Compared to the other regions, Hawai`i has a diverse fishery sector which includes deep-set and shallow-set longline, Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) troll and handline, offshore handline, and the aku boat (pole and line) fisheries. The Hawai`i longline fishery is by far the most important economically, accounting in 2015 for about 89% percent of the estimated ex-vessel value of the total commercial fish landings in the State. The MHI troll was the second largest fishery in Hawai`i. The shallow-set longline, MHI handline, aku boat, offshore handline fisheries and other gear types made up the remainder.

Participation. A total of 3,691 fishermen were licensed in 2015, including 2,045 (55%) who indicated that their primary fishing method and gear were intended to catch pelagic fish. Most licenses that indicated pelagic fishing as their primary method were issued to trollers (50%) and longline fishermen (36%). The remainder was issued to ika shibi and palu ahi (handline) (13%) and aku boat fishers (1%).

Landings. Hawai`i commercial fisheries landed 39,695,000 lbs of pelagic species in 2015, with the deep-set commercial longline fishery comprising over 80% (32,039,000 lbs) of the total. Deep-set longliners target bigeye and yellowfin tuna. The shallow-set longline fishery landed 2,791,000 lbs, or 7% of all commercial landings. The main Hawai`i Islands troll fishery landed 3,067,000 lbs of pelagic species, or 7.7% of the total. MHI handline fishery and offshore handline fishery accounted for 1,182,000 and 408,000 lbs (3% and 1% of the total landings), respectively.

The largest component of the pelagic catch was tunas, which comprised 64% of the total in 2015. Bigeye tuna alone accounted for 79% of the tunas and 50% of all pelagic catch. Billfish catch made up 17% of the total catch in 2015. Swordfish was the largest of these, at 49% of the billfish and 8% of the total catch. Catches of other pelagic management unit species (PMUS) represented 18% of the total catch in 2015 with moonfish being the largest component at 36% of the other PMUS and 7% of the total catch. The deep-set longline fishery catches about 98% of all moonfish and 96% of all pomfret landed, while the MHI troll fishery and deep-set longline fishery represented 49% and 47% of mahimahi catch in 2015.

Longline Fishery

The Hawaii-based longline fishery’s catches account for the majority of Hawaii’s commercial pelagic landings with nearly 40 million lbs in 2015 resulting in revenue exceeding $100 million. This fishery began around 1917 and was based on fishing techniques brought to Hawaii by Japanese immigrants. The early Hawaiian sampan-style flagline boats targeted large yellowfin and bigeye tuna using traditional basket gear with tarred rope mainline.

Currently, the Hawaii longline fishery is a limited entry fishery with a maximum of 164 permits available. Current participation is about 140 vessels which target a range of pelagic species. The fleet includes many newer steel longliners that were previously engaged in fisheries off the U.S. mainland. Vessels are limited to 101 ft in length. All vessels carry mandatory vessel monitoring system (VMS) monitored by NMFS and must submit Federal logsheets at the completion of every trip. Vessel sizes range up to nearly the maximum 100 foot limit, but the average size is closer to 65 – 70 ft. Almost all of the vessels are of steel construction and use flake ice to hold catch in fresh/chilled condition. A few older wooden boats persist in the fishery.

The longline fleet has historically operated in two distinct modes based on gear deployment: deep-set longline by vessels that target primarily bigeye tuna and shallow-set longlines by those that target swordfish or have mixed target trips including albacore and yellowfin tuna. Swordfish and mixed target sets are buoyed to the surface, have few hooks between floats, and are relatively shallow. These sets are primarily targeting swordfish at night. Tuna sets use a different type of float placed much further apart, have more hooks per foot between the floats and the hooks are set much deeper in the water column.

Tuna vessels may currently range out to 1,000 nautical miles (nm) but generally make trips within 500 nm from Honolulu, with most of the effort northeast of the Hawaiian Archipelago. The swordfish grounds center around the sub-tropical convergence zone that forms north of the Hawaiian archipelago near 35 degrees N. Catches by the Hawaii fleet also include mahimahi (dorado), wahoo, blue and striped marlins, opah (moonfish) and monchong (pomfret). The Hawaii fishery does not freeze its catch, which is sold for the fresh fish and sashimi market in Hawaii, Japan and the U.S. mainland. Almost all of the Hawaii-based longline catch is sold at the United Fishing Agency auction in Honolulu. It is believed that very little of the longline catch is directly marketed to retailers or exported by the fishermen; however, there are significant exports by wholesalers and retailers.

Pelagic longline fishing around Hawaii is restricted from use within a buffer zone surrounding the main Hawaiian Islands which ranges from 50-75 nm to reduce gear interaction between small and large scale fishing methods. Further buffer zones were established within a 50 nm radius of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands to minimize interactions with the endangered Hawaiian monk seals, although these waters are now encompassed by the recently established Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument– the single largest conservation area under the U.S. flag, encompassing 139,792 square miles of the Pacific Ocean – an area larger than all the country’s national parks combined.

Troll and Handline Fishery

In 2015, there were around 1,700 troll vessels and 300 handline vessels in operating in Hawaii; their catches are dominated by yellowfin, mahimahi, blue marlin, and other pelagics. Hawaii’s recreational fishery landings amount to about 8,000 mt annually, based on surveys of fishermen, with blue marlins catches ranging from 400 to 600 mt.

Northern Mariana Islands

Pelagic fisheries within the CNMI occur primarily from the island of Farallon de Medinilla south to the island of Rota. Trolling is the primary fishing method utilized in the pelagic fishery. The pelagic fishing fleet consists primarily of vessels less than 24 ft in length which usually have a limited travel radius from Saipan of about 20 miles. The number of fishermen reporting pelagic landings has fluctuated in the past 20 years from 114 in 1996 to around 20 in 2015.

The primary target and most marketable species for CNMI’s pelagic fleet are skipjack tuna. In 2015, skipjack tuna landings comprised around 71% of the entire pelagic landings. Schools of skipjack tuna have historically been common in near shore waters, providing an opportunity to catch numerous fish with a minimum of travel time and fuel costs. Skipjack is readily consumed by the local populace and several Korean restaurants, primarily as sashimi. Yellowfin tuna and mahimahi are also easily marketable species but are seasonal. During their seasonal runs, these fish are usually found close to shore and provide easy targets for the local fishermen.

In 2015, commercial pelagic landings amounted to around 140,000 lbs, with skipjack tuna landings
comprising over 90,000 lbs valued at nearly $210,000. Mahi mahai landings were around 34,000 lbs, followed by yellowfin tuna landings around 10,500 lbs. There are no longline or purse seine vessels operating out CNMI at this time.