Press Release – Scientists Caution Against Unintended Repercussions of Unnecessary US Pacific Remote Islands Fishing Regulations (29 November 2023)

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HONOLULU (29 November 2023) Science advisors to the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council expressed deep concerns at their meeting this week about the potential negative unintended consequences of adding more fishing limits in the U.S. Pacific Remote Islands (PRI).

The Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) was tasked with evaluating current fishing regulations in the PRI, commenting on their comprehensiveness and assessing the scientific justification for more regulations. SSC members reaffirmed their recommendation from the September meeting that existing regulations are sufficient to meet the goals and objectives of the proposed PRI National Marine Sanctuary. The SSC found no scientific evidence to support additional fishing regulations and cautioned further limits on the U.S. fleet could have negative impacts on the region.

“The burden of conservation will continue to fall on the shoulders of the Pacific Island communities, and additional regulations may limit future economic opportunities,” said SSC member Debra Cabrera, University of Guam (UOG).

“I would not like to see any interruptions to ongoing data collection efforts in the area like biosampling and tagging that is dependent on the fishery,” added SSC member David Itano, fisheries consultant.

SSC member Steve Martell, Sea State Inc., noted “further restrictions could displace fleets into areas that may have higher bycatch rates or limits, thereby causing a larger adverse effect on protected species populations.”

The NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center published a technical memorandum this month estimating the economic contributions of U.S. commercial fisheries to American Samoa. The report documents that hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs are directly or indirectly supported by commercial fisheries. SSC members emphasized a loss of fish supplying the cannery could be devastating, and closing waters from 50-200 nm will only further disadvantage the U.S. fleet that is already on shaky footing.

SSC members had significant concerns about the equity and environmental justice implications that the proposed sanctuary and existing marine national monuments impose on the underserved community of American Samoa and the broader Pacific Islands Region.

“I’m not only worried about the lack of U.S. footprint in those waters and the risk of foreign fleet incursions, but also the inequity in terms of Pacific Island communities who are disproportionately affected and bear the brunt of the impacts,” said SSC member Frank Camacho, UOG.

Another member noted there has been substantial outcry in American Samoa over the proposed sanctuary, which is viewed as a major threat to the economy. SSC Chair and general counsel Jim Lynch said, “Additional fishing regulations would be counterproductive to efforts to get better data from fishing communities that are disadvantaged and rely on subsistence or fisheries to make a living.”

The Council recognizes the importance of striking a balance between conservation goals and the economic and cultural well-being of Pacific Island communities. The discussions underscore the need for careful consideration of potential negative unintended consequences and the importance of data-driven decision-making. As required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the Council will continue to engage with stakeholders, evaluate scientific information, and collaborate with relevant agencies. This ensures any proposed fishing regulations for the PRI National Marine Sanctuary align with the best available science, promote sustainability, and take into account the unique circumstances of the region.

The SSC also discussed a revised timeline for the Guam bottomfish stock estimation. Before being used in fishery management, stock assessments undergo a peer review process known as a Western Pacific Stock Assessment Review. The WPSAR framework includes a schedule of intermediary update reviews, adding years of data only, between benchmark reviews that incorporate significant changes to previous assessments, such as a new model type.

For the first time, PIFSC will hold a WPSAR in July 2024 to focus on reviewing existing data before incorporating the improved information into a benchmark stock assessment. The 2019 assessment, which found the Guam bottomfish stock to be overfished, but no overfishing was occurring, will be updated in February 2024 to provide a revised annual catch limit in the interim. The Western Pacific Region is fishery data-poor, which can impact model assessments. WPSAR is a cooperative effort between the Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service and includes SSC members as the Chair and/or reviewers on its panel.

Hing Ling Chan. 2023. Economic Contributions of U.S. Commercial Fisheries in American Samoa. U.S. Dept. of Commerce, NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-PIFSC-151, 35 p. doi:10.25923/x904-a830. Available online at: https://repository.library.noaa.gov/view/noaa/55943

Scientific and Statistical Committee: James Lynch (chair); Jason Biggs (Guam Division of Aquatic & Wildlife Resources); Debra Cabrera (University of Guam); Frank Camacho (University of Guam); Milani Chaloupka (University of Queensland); Erik Franklin (University of Hawai‘i, School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology); Shelton Harley (Fisheries New Zealand); Jason Helyer (Hawai‘i Division of Aquatic Resources); Ray Hilborn (University of Washington); Justin Hospital (National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center); Dave Itano (Fisheries Consultant); Donald Kobayashi (NMFS PIFSC); Steve Martell (Sea State Inc.); Domingo Ochavillo (American Samoa Dept. of Marine & Wildlife Resources); Graham Pilling (The Pacific Community); Craig Severance (University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, retired); Francisco Villagomez (Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Fish & Wildlife); Charles Littnan (ex-officio) (NMFS PIFSC).

Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council: Secretary of Commerce appointees from nominees selected by American Samoa, the CNMI, Guam and Hawai‘i governors: Will Sword, noncommercial fisherman/engineer (American Samoa) (chair); Roger Dang, Fresh Island Fish Co. (Hawai‘i) (vice chair); Manny Dueñas, Guam Fishermen’s Cooperative Association (Guam) (vice chair); Judith Guthertz, University of Guam (Guam); Pete Itibus, noncommercial fisher (CNMI); Shaelene Kamaka‘ala, Hawaiian Islands Land Trust (Hawai‘i); and Matt Ramsey, Conservation International (Hawai‘i). Designated state officials: Dawn Chang, Hawai‘i Dept. of Land & Natural Resources; Sylvan Igisomar, CNMI Dept. of Lands & Natural Resources (vice chair); Chelsa Muña, Guam Dept. of Agriculture; and Archie Soliai, American Samoa Dept. of Marine & Wildlife Resources (vice chair). Designated federal officials (voting): Sarah Malloy (acting), NMFS Pacific Islands Regional Office. Designated federal officials (nonvoting): Colin Brinkman, U.S. State Dept.; Brian Peck, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; and RADM Michael Day, U.S. Coast Guard 14th District.

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