Leatherback sea turtle. Photo courtesy USFWS.

HONOLULU (6 August 2019) The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council will meet on Aug. 8, 2019, to consider final recommendations on the management of the Hawai’i swordfish fishery’s interactions with leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) provided a final biological opinion (BiOp) during the 178th Council meeting in June 2019 (originally due October 2018), but the Council deferred action at the time to allow adequate time to review the final BiOp.

The final BiOp determined that the swordfish fishery is not jeopardizing the continued existence of these sea turtles and authorizes the accidental hooking and subsequent release of 21 leatherbacks and 36 loggerheads. Based on observer data since 1994, 100 percent of leatherback turtles and over 99 percent of loggerhead turtles observed in this fishery have been released alive with a high chance of survival. Despite finding that the impacts of the fishery are not expected to appreciably reduce these two populations’ likelihood of surviving and recovering in the wild, the final BiOp requires additional measures to further reduce incidental captures and mortalities. Specifically, if the fleetwide leatherback interaction reaches the “hard cap” of 16, the BiOp requires that the fishery be closed for the remainder of the calendar year.

The final BiOp also requires implementing individual trip limits of two leatherback or five loggerhead interactions per vessel per trip. However, once a vessel reaches a trip limit twice in a year, it will be prohibited from shallow-set fishing for the remainder of the year, and the vessel will be subject to an annual vessel limit of 2 leatherbacks or 5 loggerheads for the following year. There is no hard cap required in the new BiOp for loggerhead turtles, which has a stable and increasing population.

Over the last five years in the North Pacific Ocean, approximately 99 million hooks were deployed overall in shallow-set longline fisheries annually (reported by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission). Of those, on average 1.2 million hooks (about 1 percent) are deployed annually by the Hawai’i-based shallow-set longline fishery.

“We know what the US shallow-set longline fishing impacts are on loggerheads and leatherbacks in the Pacific due to our 100 percent observer coverage,” remarked Council Chairman Archie Soliai. “When other countries are struggling to meet the internationally-required 5 percent observer coverage, how much confidence do we have about the loggerhead and leatherback impacts for the remaining 98 million hooks set?”

The Council’s recommendation from its 177th meeting in April 2019 was to manage the fishery under annual fleetwide hard cap limits of 16 leatherbacks and 36 loggerheads. The Council initially put the hard caps in place in 2004 as a backup measure when new bait and gear changes were implemented, which, along with other measures, reduced interactions by about 90 percent. The Council also recommended individual trip interaction limits of two leatherbacks and five loggerheads. Once either limit is reached, the vessel would be required to immediately return to port, after which they may resume shallow-set fishing. The original Council recommendations were much simpler and did not include additional vessel restrictions.

The Council will take all information into account, including the measures required under the final BiOp, when it considers final action this week.

The Council’s Hawai‘i Archipelago Fishery Ecosystem Plan Advisory Panel (AP) and Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) will meet on Aug. 7, 2019, in advance of the Council meeting to discuss recommendations to the Council for the final action on managing loggerhead and leatherback sea turtle interactions in the Hawai’i-based shallow-set longline fishery.

The AP, SSC and Council meetings can be attended remotely by web conference at: https://wprfmc.webex.com/join/info.wpcouncilnoaa.gov. The Council office will also serve as a meeting host site: 1164 Bishop Street, Suite 1400, Honolulu, Hawai’i. Council meeting documents available on our website (www.wpcouncil.org) include the Federal Register notice, Council meeting agenda, a summary of the action item, a draft amendment to the Pelagic Fishery Ecosystem Plan, and the full Endangered Species Act BiOp from NMFS.

 Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council: Secretary of Commerce appointees from nominees selected by American Samoa, CNMI, Guam and Hawaii governors: Archie Soliai, StarKist (American Samoa) (chair); Christinna Lutu-Sanchez, commercial fisherman (American Samoa) (vice chair); John Gourley, Micronesian Environmental Services (CNMI) (vice chair); Michael Duenas, Guam Fishermen’s Cooperative Association (Guam) (vice chair); Dean Sensui, Hawaii Goes Fishing (Hawai’i) (vice chair); Michael Goto, United Fishing Agency (Hawai’i); Edwin Watamura, Waialua Boat Club (Hawai’i); McGrew Rice, charter boat captain (CNMI). Designated state officials: Raymond Roberto, CNMI Dept. of Lands and Natural Resources; Suzanne Case, Hawai’i Dept. of Land & Natural Resources; Chelsa Muña-Brecht, Guam Dept. of Agriculture; Henry Sesepasara, American Samoa Dept. 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.