Press Release – Hawaii Longline Bigeye Fishery in the Western and Central Pacific Forced to Close

HONOLULU (29 July 2015) The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has announced that Hawaii longline vessels fishing in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) will no longer be able to retain and land bigeye tuna between August 5, 2015, and the end of the year. This is because the fishery has reached a bigeye catch limit of 3,502 metric tons (mt), established by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) in 2014.

The United States is a member of the WCPFC, which is an international fisheries organization consisting of over 30 countries charged with managing tuna and other highly migratory fish stocks in the WCPO. The WCPO is the world’s largest tuna fishery, driven by the industrial purse-seine fleets targeting skipjack and yellowfin, with recent annual catches estimated at around 3,000,000 mt.

Longline catch limits are among a suite of measures adopted by the WCPFC for the conservation and management of WCPO bigeye. Overexploitation of bigeye has developed over the past 30 years with increasing catches of juveniles by purse-seine vessels, on top of the catch of adults by longliners. Purse-seine vessels incidentally catch small bigeye while fishing on drifting fish aggregation devices (FADs) when targeting skipjack and yellowfin for canned markets. Longline vessels target adult bigeye for sashimi markets.

No bigeye catch limits are required of the various fleets of tuna purse-seine vessels in the WCPO, which collectively catch more bigeye in total than the longline fleets. Over the past decade, longline fleets throughout the WCPO have reduced their bigeye catches consistent with WCPFC conservation and management measures. Purse-seine bigeye catches, however, continue to rise, reaching record levels in 2013 of 82,000 mt versus a longline catch in the same year of about 63,000 mt.

Although the WCPO will be restricted to Hawaii longline vessels, some will be able to fish for bigeye to the east of the 150 degree line of longitude in the Eastern Pacific Ocean (EPO), which is under a different international tuna management regime, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. However, Hawaii and other US longline vessels in the EPO are subject to a 500 mt bigeye limit for vessels greater than 24 meters (m). This limit is expected to be reached sometime in September. Approximately, 23 percent of the Hawaii longline fleet is over 24 m.

The effects of these closures are going to reduce the supply of Hawaii longline-caught bigeye tuna to the Honolulu fish auction. From an economic perspective, each Hawaii longline vessel can be likened to a “mom and pop store” or similar small business. Not being able to fish is like a store closing for the same amount of time, with disastrous effects on livelihoods.

There is a ray of light on the horizon for Hawaii consumers who prefer locally caught bigeye tuna. Under federal regulations recommended by the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (Council), the US Participating Territories to the WCPFC, which include Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands have the ability to transfer bigeye quota to the Hawaii longline fishery.

The Council has managed the Hawaii longline fleet for the past 30 years, and it continues to be a well-managed, highly monitored environmentally responsible fishery. The Hawaii fleet targets bigeye at high latitudes, well outside the tropical and equatorial zones, where 90 percent of bigeye fishing mortality occurs. Scientific research has shown that the operational area of the Hawaii fleet has very little impact on bigeye stock status.

The potential interruption in bigeye catch and the climate of uncertainty will have a negative impact on the seafood industry in Hawaii, especially for those dealers who prize US caught bigeye above foreign imports. There is an increasing demand by local retailers to supply not only locally caught fish, but to know that the supply is also from the environmentally responsible Hawaii longline fleet.