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Press Release – Federal Managers Delay Final Recommendations on Leatherback and Loggerhead Sea Turtle Interactions with Hawaii Swordfish Fishery (Dec. 18, 2018)

The fishery is scheduled to reopen on Jan. 1, 2019, with allowable interactions of 26 leatherbacks and 17 loggerheads. Should either interaction level be reached, the fishery will close for the remainder of 2019, unless the biological opinion currently in development allows for higher interaction levels and NMFS implements new regulations.

The current leatherback level is based on a 2012 biological opinion, while, consistent with a court-approved settlement agreement, the loggerhead level is based on a 2004 biological opinion. As a result of a split Ninth Circuit decision, a federal district court vacated the loggerhead cap of 34, while leaving the leatherback interaction limit of 26 in place.  The lawsuit settlement also closed the fishery from May 8 to Dec. 31, 2018.

Since 2004, when use of circle hooks and mackerel-like bait (as opposed to squid) became mandatory, the Hawaii swordfish fishery’s interactions with loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles have been rare events. The 2005-2018 annual averages are 7.5 interactions with leatherbacks and 12.4 interactions with loggerheads. These statistics are based on 14 years of data collected by NMFS observers, who are required to be on every Hawaii longline vessel on every trip targeting swordfish. Based on the observer data, all the turtles have been released alive. However, NMFS considers about 20 percent to be mortality events based principally on the trailing fishing gear on the released turtles.

Recent NMFS population vulnerability assessments presented to Council members at the meeting indicate that the long-term outlook for loggerheads is promising while the projection for leatherbacks has an estimated 5.3 percent decline over the next century. This projection, while cause for concern,  is tempered by recent data showing some rebound capacity with an increase in nest counts since 2013 at two beaches in Indonesia that account for 85 percent of the Pacific leatherback nesting population. Impacts to the leatherback population include poaching and predation on nesting beaches as well as interactions with international fisheries. Conservation projects are ongoing on nesting beaches, and regional fishery management organizations are developing international mitigation measures.

At yesterday’s meeting, the Council considered NMFS Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s simulations applying mitigation measures to historic interaction rates in the fishery. Because sea turtle interactions are already rare, most options did not result in substantial reduction in expected interaction rates, but some options may serve as preventive measures. Accordingly, the Council will consider whether additional mitigation is needed once more complete information from the biological opinion is available.

The meeting yesterday concluded with the Council reiterating the recommendation it made in June 2018 requesting that NMFS provide funding to support research in minimizing trailing gear to further reduce post-hooking mortality rates of leatherback and loggerhead turtles. Development of additional tools and techniques would allow quick and safe removal of trailing gear for large turtles that cannot be brought on board. Leatherback turtles weigh 750 pounds on average.

Council Executive Director Kitty M. Simonds said the Council expects to reconvene in early February after release of the new draft biological opinion. The Council is seeking to establish a management framework that includes a mechanism for early detection and response to higher interaction anomalies or hotspots. This management would minimize interactions while helping to ensure a year-round supply of swordfish to meet domestic demand.

The Hawaii longline fishery accounts for approximately half of the US domestic swordfish production. Landings by the Hawaii shallow-set longline fleet help to place Honolulu as the 7th ranked port in the United States for value of seafood landings.

Under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, the Council has authority over fisheries seaward of state waters of Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and the US Pacific Remote Islands. Based on the yet to be released biological opinion, the Council may decide to uphold recommendations are transmitted to the Secretary of Commerce for final approval.

For the full agenda and background materials on the meeting, go to www.wpcouncil.org or contact the Council at info.wpcouncil@noaa.gov or (808) 522-8220.

Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council: Secretary of Commerce appointees from nominees selected by American Samoa, CNMI, Guam and Hawaii governors: John Gourley, Micronesian Environmental Services (CNMI) (acting chair); Michael Duenas, Guam Fishermen’s Cooperative Association (Guam) (vice chair); Dean Sensui, film producer (Hawaii) (vice chair); Archie Soliai, StarKist (American Samoa) (vice chair); Michael Goto, United Fishing Agency (Hawaii); Christinna Lutu-Sanchez, commercial fisherman (American Samoa); Edwin Watamura (Hawaii). Designated state officials: Raymond Roberto, CNMI Department of Lands and Natural Resources; Suzanne Case, Hawaii Department of Land & Natural Resources; Matt Sablan, Guam Department of Agriculture; Henry Sesepasra, American Samoa Department of Marine & Wildlife Resources. Designated federal officials (voting): Michael Tosatto, NMFS Pacific Islands Regional Office. Designated federal officials (non-voting): RADM Kevin Lunday, USCG 14th District; Michael Brakke, US Department of State; Brian Peck, USFWS.