Historical Overview of the Fisheries- – US Pacific Remote Islands

The record of fishing at the PRIA is fragmentary at best. Islands such as Palmyra, Midway, Johnston and Wake have been populated by substantial numbers of people, primarily military personnel, who may have fished recreationally. For example 6,000 military personnel were based at Palmyra and 5,000 at Midway during WWII. Johnston and WakeIslands have housed up to 1,300 and 1,700 military and civilians, respectively, during the latter half of the 20th century, and Wake housed up to 8,000 Vietnamese refugees in 1975 following the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam. In his last months in office, President George W. Bush proclaimed all of the PRIA (except Midway, which is included in the NorthwesternHawaiian IslandsMarineNational Monument) as the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monuments with boundaries extending 50 miles from shore. The proclamations prohibited commercial fishing, among other things, but allowed for the possibility of recreational fishing.

There are no permanent residents on any of these islands, although on Wake and Johnston there are temporary work forces that have a long history of recreational fishing and shell collecting. The fishery at Johnston Atoll was described over a six-year period (1985-1990), based on the results of a creel census. According to the survey, long-term “residents” (almost all employees of the prime contractor for Johnston Atoll operations) conducted most of the fishing and thus produced a large proportion of the catch. These residents fished for enjoyment, to add fresh fish to their diet, and to accumulate fish to take home on leave. The remainder of the catch was harvested by “transients,” military personnel and contractors stationed on the island for one or two years. However, through cooperative management between the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and military management, the practice of shipping coolers of fish back to Hawaii by workers stationed on the atolls was stopped.

Likewise, the collection and shipment of live corals by recreational divers were also stopped. Irons et al. (1990) reported that soldierfish (Myrispristis amaenus) composed the largest proportion of reef fish catch at Johnston. Gear types varied with the target species and included hook-and-line, spears and throw nets. All of the more heavily fished areas at Johnston were located in nearshore waters.  In 2003, the USFWS assumed control of Johnston Island as a wildlife refuge, and fishing was prohibited out to 12 nm around the island.

Some recreational fishing continues at Palmyra, which was bought by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). TNC conveyed 439 acres of the property to the USFWS to be included as a wildlife refuge. Fly fishing is permitted in the Palmyra lagoon on a catch and release basis, and limited catch and release is permitted in offshore waters. Like the other PRIA islands, Palmyra is included in as one of the National Marine Monuments.

Hawaii-based vessels have been reported to make sporadic commercial fishing trips to Palmyra and Kingman Reef to harvest bottomfish and coastal sharks for finning. Commercial data held by the State of Hawaii for the years 1988-2007 indicates that over this period a total of 51,740 lbs non-longline caught pelagic fish, and 19,095 lbs of bottomfish and reef fish were caught at Palmyra, Kingman Reef and Johnston Island. This is equivalent to 1,293 lbs/year non-longline pelagic fish and 477 lbs/year of bottomfish and reef fish. Currently, about 11 fishermen hold permits to harvest troll and handline pelagic fish in the PRIA, though none have been active in recent years.

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, prior to becoming part of the NWHI Marine National Monument, offered sport-fishing charters.

The largest volume of fish commercially harvested from the PRIA in recent times is pelagic fish caught by longliners home ported in Hawaii and tuna purse seiners home ported in American Samoa.