Press Release – WCPFC Increases US Bigeye Tuna Catch Limit, Although US Fails to Secure Benefits for Pacific Territories (11 December 2023)

News and Updates, Press Releases

RAROTONGA, COOK ISLANDS (11 December 2023) The 20th Regular Session of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meeting convened in the Cook Islands concluded past 3:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. The meeting was an overall success with a revised tropical tuna conservation and management measure (CMM) for 2024 through 2026. The measure, which covers nearly 60% of global tuna supply, establishes international rules for bigeye, skipjack and yellowfin tuna fishing. This year’s meeting was highlighted by an overdue increase in bigeye tuna catch limit for the U.S. Hawai‘i-based longline fishery. However, the U.S. head of delegation and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) were not prepared to successfully negotiate the recognition of an American Samoa purse seine fleet for privileges it should be entitled as a Participating Territory under the Commission.

The Commission increased the Hawai‘i longline fishery catch limit of bigeye tuna to 6,554 metric tons—a 3,000 mt increase—supported by evidence from the Science Provider (SPC). The CMM increases catch limits for five nations with fishing limits for longline-caught bigeye contingent on increases of human observers and/or electronic monitoring. The U.S. Hawai‘i longline fishery would not be required to increase its observer coverage as it maintains a level that far exceeds other countries. The successful increase for the Hawai‘i longline fishery follows nearly two years of collaboration between the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (Council) and the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority, who co-convened three workshops on longline fishery management.

Stakeholders and Council members appreciated the endorsement of Commission Members and agreed that the U.S. longline fishery should have a higher catch limit. Council Executive Director Kitty Simonds said, “This came with the understanding that Hawai‘i vessels are well-managed, fish sustainably, and a part of a niche fresh fish market.”

However, the increase for the Hawai‘i longline fishery came at a cost. To the detriment of the U.S. Participating Territories, the United States failed to retain a provision in the tropical tuna CMM that allows for the transfer of portions of catch to the Hawai‘i longline fishery in exchange for funds under specified fishing agreements. The loss of that provision eliminated those agreements and funding that had been a cornerstone of the territories’ fishery development initiatives. “We vehemently oppose giving away that provision without consultation with the territories,” said Council Chair Taulapapa William Sword. “We were not consulted before, or during, the meeting and were caught by surprise. We realize it wasn’t even necessary to sacrifice this provision to increase the bigeye longline quota.”

CNMI Head of Delegation Sylvan Igisomar added, “Although this is a win for the Hawai‘i longline fishery, it is a devastating loss for the Pacific Territories.”

The agreement included reduced fish aggregating device (FAD) closure periods for purse seine vessels from three months in exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Pacific nations to 1.5 months and to 2.5 months on the high seas. The purpose of these closures is to decrease juvenile mortality for bigeye tuna, which are incidentally caught in the purse seine sets targeting skipjack tuna—the primary species used in canned tuna.

While fishing privileges were to be balanced between longline and purse seine fisheries as part of negotiations, the Commission did not adopt a proposal from American Samoa seeking the same benefits that are entitled to other Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Participating Territories. “Other SIDS and Participating Territories have been granted similar privileges on the high seas and in EEZs, such as fishing during FAD closures, and American Samoa proposed the same benefits for vessels integral to our economy,” said Taotasi Archie Soliai, Head of Delegation for American Samoa.

Soliai previously asked NMFS to proceed with rulemaking that would recognize, through U.S. regulations, a distinct territorial purse seine fleet for American Samoa. This distinction would help American Samoa’s fleet attain this recognition in the Commission. Unfortunately, NMFS did not take action as requested. “We are hopeful that with the positive relationships we are building with our Pacific Islands brothers and sisters, we can finally negotiate a favorable agreement,” said Soliai.

The Commission is responsible for the international management of tunas in the western and central Pacific, including more than 80% of the tuna production coming from the Hawai‘i longline fishery. Next year’s Science Committee and annual Regular Session of the Commission will be hosted in the Philippines and Fiji, respectively. The 2024 meetings will focus on the development of a new CMM for South Pacific albacore, the targeted tuna stock of the American Samoa longline fishery.

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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