Press Release – Scientists Endorse HI and Guam Bottomfish Stock Assessments, Recommend Approaches to Survey False Killer Whales (15 March 2024)

News and Updates, Press Releases

HONOLULU (15 March 2024) Yesterday science advisors to the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council accepted two recent bottomfish stock assessments for the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) and Guam as the best scientific information available (BSIA).

The assessments found the MHI deep-seven stock is not overfished and not experiencing overfishing, and the Guam stock is likely not overfished and likely not experiencing overfishing relative to reference points.

The Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) endorsed the 2023 benchmark stock assessment and recommended the Council initiate the process for setting an updated acceptable biological catch and specifying annual catch limits (ACLs). 

The assessment from the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) used data from the Hawai‘i Fishery Reporting System and the Bottomfish Fishery Independent Survey in Hawai‘i (BFISH) survey, spanning fishing years 1949 to 2023. Significant improvements were made to catch data evaluation and standardization techniques, culminating in a robust modeling platform known as Just Another Bayesian Biomass Assessment (JABBA). PIFSC incorporated adjustments based on feedback from the 2023 Western Pacific Stock Assessment Review (WPSAR), improving the assessment’s reliability.

SSC members suggested upcoming assessments explore age-based models and conduct tests to check the accuracy of data standardization methods. They also voiced concerns about using data from the Hawai‘i Marine Recreational Fishing Survey to determine fishing effort and proposed different ways to estimate catch levels from various sectors.

Regarding the Guam bottomfish fishery, the SSC accepted the 2024 assessment and recommended the Council determine if the ACLs for Guam bottomfish need revision within the current rebuilding plan. The fishery is operating under a rebuilding plan that addresses its previously overfished condition based on the 2019 assessment. It uses an associated ACL of 31,000 pounds to rebuild the stock.

The updated stock assessment includes data from 2018 to 2023 and highlights changes in species composition, notably an increase in onaga (longtailed red snapper, Etelis coruscans). The assessment indicates that while the stock is not currently overfished or experiencing overfishing, it hasn’t yet reached sustainable yield levels, necessitating continued adherence to the rebuilding plan. 

False Killer Whale Management Area

The SSC determined the available scientific information was not suitable for estimating the abundance of the Hawai‘i offshore population of false killer whales (FKWs) in areas outside of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In 2023, PIFSC defined a new “management area” for the offshore pelagic stock that is known to inhabit areas both inside and outside of the EEZ around Hawai‘i. The SSC adopted the report and recommendations from a working group tasked with reviewing the pelagic FKW management area approach. 

The working group found the limited biological data outside of the EEZ were not sufficient to delineate a biologically based area that defines the pelagic stock, or for applying the modeling approach used to estimate the number of animals inhabiting that area. The SSC recommended the National Marine Fisheries Service not use the approach for any management purpose, and instead recommended prioritizing gathering additional tagging and genetic data outside of the EEZ. 

Pelagic FKWs are known to take bait and catch from longline fishing gear, and may be accidentally caught in these fisheries. Most FKWs accidentally caught in the Hawai‘i deep-set longline fishery are released alive. However, NMFS considers most of these interactions to be “serious injuries” if the hook or other part of the longline gear is left on the animal. The abundance estimates for FKWs are used to estimate the maximum number of individuals that can be removed from a population without causing it to decline below a sustainable level. 

Recent Publication on Gaps in Biodiversity Protection

The SSC discussed a presentation on a new scientific framework published in a recent scientific journal aiming to evaluate marine biodiversity across different spatial scales. The framework emphasizes identifying ecologically and societally important marine species, characterizing effective protection networks and using existing data. The authors’ analysis found current U.S. marine protected areas contain only a fraction of the nation’s marine biodiversity, with none meeting all criteria for effective protection. 

However, the SSC highlighted the contentious nature of defining “protection” and raised concerns about the assumption that total area closures are the most effective means of protection. The SSC noted a total closure might not be as effective as technical measures for specific conservation and fisheries management objectives.

SSC members highlighted the importance of identifying threats to evaluate the effectiveness of conservation measures. They emphasized that threats like climate change and human activities are significant concerns for biodiversity protection, which may not be fully addressed by protected areas alone. Despite the report showing 97% of the biodiversity claimed to be protected in the United States is within the Western Pacific Region, the SSC asserted the report is not a fair assessment of conservation measures implemented throughout the nation.

The SSC recommended the Council work with the Council Coordination Committee, comprising the eight regional fishery management councils, to ensure proposed conservation measures address identifiable threats and have measurable impacts in mitigating those threats.

Scientific and Statistical Committee: James Lynch (chair); Jason Biggs (Guam Div. 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 Div. 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 Div. 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 Assn. (Guam) (vice chair); Judith Guthertz, University of Guam (Guam); Pete Itibus, noncommercial fisher (CNMI); Shaelene Kamaka‘ala, Hawaiian Islands Land Trust (Hawai‘i); Matt Ramsey, Conservation International (Hawai‘i); and Gene Weaver, CNMI Judiciary (CNMI). 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.