The sale of half of the Commonwealth’s bigeye tuna fishing quota has effectively allowed Hawaii longline fishermen to sink their hooks into the ocean again—two months after the Hawaii vessels were banned from fishing after exhausting the state’s catch limits.
Gov. Eloy S. Inos has struck an agreement with about three dozen longline fishing vessels—specifically Quota Management, Inc. of Honolulu—to transfer 1,000 metric tons of the CNMI’s 2,000-metric-ton-limit to these Hawaiian vessels, according to the Western and Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council in a statement yesterday.
CNMI Department of Lands and Natural Resources Secretary Richard Seman separately confirmed this agreement yesterday, which will sell 1,000 metric ton of the year 2015’s 2,000 metric ton territory limit.
Seman said the agreement is broken down into three parts: for the first year, the CNMI gets $150,000 for the allocation; the second year the CNMI gets $175,000 for quota transferred that year; and in the third year the CNMI gets $200,000 for quota transferred, for a total of $525,000.
“Whether they use it or not, it doesn’t matter,” Seman said of the allocation.
Since Aug. 12, about three dozen of the 145 active vessels in the Hawaii fleet were prohibited from fishing for bigeye tuna—locally known as ahi—in Western and Central Pacific Ocean by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which had determined that the fishing fleet had reached its 2015 quota of 3,502 metric tons.
But a final rule announced by the Service yesterday gives the fishing industry more wiggle room.
“NMFS will allow the [CNMI] territory to allocate up to 1,000 mt each year to U.S. longline fishing vessels in a specified agreement that meets established criteria,” said the Service.
“NMFS will monitor catches of longline caught bigeye tuna by the CNMI longline fisheries, including catches made by U.S. longline vessels operating under specified fishing agreements,” assured the Service.
The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission—an international body—distributes these quotas. However, the CNMI quota for the most part remains unused.
“We never have [reached] even one ton of big-eye [tuna] catch here in the CNMI in any given year,” Seman told Saipan Tribune yesterday.
“Three dozen of [the longline vessels] have put their resources together and entered into an agreement with our governor for the 1,000 metric ton allocation,” Seman explained. “These longliner association members that have joined this particular purchase of quota are specifically listed in the agreement between the CNMI government…to take advantage of our unused allocation.
“Hawaii, as we speak, is going out fishing for the 1,000 metric tons,” Seman added.
He said Inos signed the agreement in September.
“It’s not really a fish that we have up here. What we have up here is yellowfin, bonita…and every now and then some albacore,” Seman said.
Wespac, in a statement, said Hawaii’s $100-million fishery has reopened with the Service’s announcement.
“The U.S. longline fleet had not increased its effort,” said Kitty Simonds, executive director of Wespac. “But it experienced a bumper crop of bigeye, apparently as a result of the El Niño weather.”
“Arbitrary quotas not linked to conservation objectives kept our boats tied at the docks,” Simonds said. “The struggling vessels and small businesses they support accumulated millions of dollars in debt each month, causing untold anxiety for our local fishing community and consumers,” Simonds added.
“The Hawaii fishery lands only 1 and a half percent of the bigeye tuna caught in the Pacific Ocean,” Simonds added. “Our fishery was being unfairly penalized for a problem it did not create.”
The Hawaii longline fishery is unique. The fish are packed in ice and brought fresh to the dock for mostly Hawaii consumption. Only 3 percent is exported. The value of the fish landed by the Hawaii fleet is about $100 million, resulting in the port of Honolulu consistently ranking among the nation’s top 10 ports in landed value, according to the NMFS Fisheries of the United States annual reports.
Boost to fishermen co-op
Seman said that portions of the quota sale would be used to build a permanent building for the local fishermen’s cooperative.
“It’s one of our goals and objective to help allocate some of that fund toward developing our fishery,” he said. “Now we have some seed money to help start it. [The Department of] Public Works is helping out with design of the permanent co-op.”
“This is a place where fishermen will not have to worry…if they are a member, after coming from days of fishing, they don’t have to worry about where to sell their fish. As a member they go straight to the co-op, unload, and they are done,” Seman said, noting other benefits like discounted gas and ice to pack their fish.
“They can offset their catch with their charges,” Seman explained. “It’s time for a permanent site.”
He disclosed that architecture and design for the project is expected to be done by the end of the year, with construction beginning around the middle of next year, and a grand opening eyed by the end of next year.
The announced rule to transfer the quota allocation has met its share of opposition. Right now, there is a pending litigation from the Conservation Council for Hawaii that challenges the framework process that allows U.S. Pacific Island territories to allocate a portion of their bigeye tuna catch limit to longline vessels.
According to various formal comments submitted and published on the Federal Register, there is concern that the rule would further undermine international efforts to eliminate overfishing of bigeye tuna. There is also concern that the new specifications would authorize Hawaii-based longliners to catch far more bigeye than ever before.
The Conservation Council for Hawaii said the proposed allocation is “illegal” and argue that the Service is enabling the fishermen to circumvent international agreements aimed at controlling the overfishing of this popular tuna species.