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How Fish Get From the Sea to Your Plate

The tug of war between fishermen, regulators, environmentalists and global competitors complicates the $87-million-a-year local industry

(page 3 of 4)

If you’re eating fresh ahi, mahimahi, opah, ono or swordfish, it was probably sold at the Honolulu Fish Auction. Organizers say up to 160,000 pounds of fish are sold in a single day.

Environmental Criticism

For Patricia Tummons, publisher and editor of the well-regarded newsletter Environment Hawaii, this kind of industry insouciance is galling. Tummons’ coverage of the fisheries frequently gives lie to what she perceives as Wespac’s disingenuousness. One of the claims of the longliners, for example, is that, despite rumors otherwise, almost all the bigeye sold at the Honolulu fish auction is consumed domestically. In particular, they say that, although some tuna is shipped to mainland and Canadian markets, less than 1 percent is exported to Japan.

“People have this idea that the fish go to Japan,” says Sean Martin. “Really, Japan comes to us. That’s what I tell people. If you think about it, Japan comes to us in the form of tourism. Besides, Japan is a very competitive market, worldwide. There are, however, many planes a day coming into Narita or Haneda or anywhere else that are capable of carrying fish, so significant amounts of fish from other countries are coming into Japan. They don’t need Hawaii.”

But Tummons doesn’t buy it. In an editorial in the May 2012 issue of Environment Hawaii, she writes: “The notion that the longliners practice subsistence fishing and that they sell 99 percent of the catch locally, foregoing the lucrative markets in Asia and the U.S. mainland – well, they make for a good story, but no one who has seen the frenetic bidding at the Honolulu fish auction, with Japanese buyers on the phone to their Japanese clients, would give it credence.”

Tummons also scoffs at what she sees as the audacity of longliners to boast about the reduction in turtle and bird interactions, pointing out in her June 2012 newsletter that these conservation measures were enacted because of lawsuits brought by environmental groups such as the Ocean Conservancy. For example, she notes, Paul Dalzell, chief scientist for Wespac, still doesn’t believe the longline fishery ever posed a serious threat to the turtle population, and yet Wespac still wants to take credit for the changes in longline operations that were put in place to protect the turtles.

For his part, Dalzell echoes Martin and other fishery members, describing Hawaii’s longline fishery as being at the forefront of marine conservation: first in the country to enact an observer program, an early adoptee of ecosystem-based versus species-based conservation plans and a major player in the conservation of sea turtles and seabirds. All true, perhaps, but, according to Tummons, all after the fact.

More recently, Tummons has criticized the fishery and federal regulators, whom she sees as too cozy with Wespac, and longliners’ response to new regulations on the incidental taking of false killer whales by the deep-set fishery. These proposed rules, which could close as much as 150,000 square miles of ocean to longliners once two false killer whales are seriously injured, are another example of conflict between marine scientists and fishermen. Cetacean scientists believe false killer whales in the longliner fishing areas are under grave threat. Fishermen and NMFS aren’t convinced; they want more studies.

Similarly, Tummons points to a change in regulations that allows Hawaii longliners to sidestep their quota of 3,763 metric tons of bigeye by paying U.S. territories, such as Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, to cede their fishing quota to Hawaii boats. That’s how the Hawaii longline fleet continued fishing in 2012, despite reaching its limit in mid-November. According to Wespac and Hawaii longliners, this is just an exchange of U.S. fish among U.S. jurisdictions, but the truth is a little more complex. In fact, because these U.S. territories are considered Small Island Developing Countries by international law, they don’t necessarily have a firm quota. And, by Tummons’ calculation, the whole arrangement is just a ploy to avoid complying with international agreements.

But Tummons’ most vociferous complaints have been against the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Council and the way it conducts business. Wespac is one of eight regional fishery management councils created in 1976 by the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. These regional councils are supposed to provide “science-based” fisheries-management recommendations to the Department of Commerce. Ultimately, the Secretary of Commerce must sign off on any new policy or regulation, but, in practice, regional fisheries councils like Wespac play a major role in the nation’s marine fisheries policy. For environmentalists, this has always been seen as the fox guarding the hen house. By design, most of the members of the regional fisheries councils are fishermen or tied to the fishing industry. Almost inevitably, this leads to an apparent conflict of interest. Since the principal tools of fishery management and marine conservation involve reducing allowable catches, limiting access to fisheries or cutting fishery effort, fishermen stand to lose money – at least in the short term – whenever science says a particular fishery is in danger. Environmentalists point out that fishery management councils have resisted new regulations even as the country’s fisheries have declined.

Tummons has been particularly scathing in her criticism of Wespac executive director Kitty Simonds, whom Tummons believes has repeatedly violated federal law. She has accused Simonds and other Wespac executives of failure to fully account for expenses – the fisheries management councils are funded largely through federal taxes – spending lavishly on travel and entertainment, and running the council like a personal fiefdom, holding unannounced closed-door meetings and promoting Simonds’ own agenda rather than what’s good for the fishery. In a recent editorial, Tummons stated directly: “There is still one huge step that can be taken to move fisheries management in the Pacific into the 21st century: Simonds can and should resign.”

Sean Martin, former council chair, allows that Simonds is sometimes controversial. “Kitty is a lightning rod,” he says. “But I will say Kitty is very much an advocate for fisheries. That’s her job. And you could make the argument that that’s National Marine

Fisheries Service’s job, too, but they have other pressures they have to accommodate.”
Martin also believes that environmentalists overestimate the power of Wespac. “People have this idea that the fishery council is the power in fishery regulation, but that’s not really true; they just advise. And there are proposed amendments that are rejected – that the Fishery Service doesn’t agree with, that didn’t meet some criteria or something – and it’s, ‘Thank you for your advice, but no thanks.’ But if you look at the council’s record and what they’ve done over the last 25 years or so that I’ve been involved with it, in many ways it’s so far ahead of other regions and councils. The Hawaii longline fishery was the first limited-entry program in the U.S. for a pelagic fishery. We were the first ones to have what’s called VMS – vessel monitoring systems – which means there’s a transponder that tracks the boats, so Big Brother is always watching.”

Environmentalists, of course, point out that Wespac resisted the implementation of most of these programs.

Pete Grillo (facing page) is one of the newest owners in Hawaii’s longliner fleet, though he has been fishing in Hawaii for 12 years. He says fishing remains back-breaking work, but today it also requires the ability to read and interpret satellite data and other modern skills.

International Threat

All the focus on Wespac, NMFS and the Hawaii longliners misses a big part of the picture. That’s because the bigeye tuna fishery isn’t really regulated on the local or national level; by treaty, it’s regulated by international bodies like the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, based in La Jolla, Calif., and especially the Western and Central Pacific Fishery Commission, based in Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia. The jurisdictions of these two bodies are basically split down the middle of the Pacific, at 140 degrees longitude, and Hawaii longliners fish in both.

As a practical matter, though, the main action on the international front happens far in the West Pacific. That’s not only because the WCPFC is based there, but because that’s where most of the bigeye fishing mortality happens. Hawaii longliners, it turns out, contribute comparatively little to the total catch of bigeye. In 2011, even with the added allotment from the American Samoa fishery, Hawaii longliners only caught 4,742 metric tons of bigeye, roughly 1,000 metric tons over their putative limit.

In contrast, the purse seine fishery in the Western Pacific – mostly giant, multimillion-dollar industrial boats from Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and the mainland U.S. – sucked up more than 70,000 metric tons of bigeye. The remarkable thing is that bigeye isn’t even the target fish of the Western Pacific purse seine fishery. The purse seiners are mainly after skipjack, which congregate under FADs, or fish aggregation devices, and the purse seiners scoop them by the millions in enormous nets. The problem is that juvenile bigeye also congregate under the FADs, and they also get scooped up. The bigeye aren’t even really marketable for the purse seiners; they’re basically by-catch. “The purse seiners are supposed to be regulated by effort and FAD sets,” says Wespac’s Dalzell, “but the catch hasn’t come down. The annual reduction in FAD sets just hasn’t been effective.”

U.S. representatives at the recent meeting of the WCPFC in Cairns, Australia, hoped regulatory changes would shift more responsibility for the reduction in bigeye mortality to the purse seiners in the Western Pacific. The results were disappointing, Dalzell says. “That’s because the U.S. longline fishery, which is the Hawaii fishery, is going to have to take a 10 percent cut over a four-year time period. For us, we see no conservation benefit from that. Other longline fisheries are also taking cuts, but the Japanese fishery’s cut, for example, is pretty much a paper cut. They’re cut from nearly 20,000 metric tons to about 17,000 metric tons; but their fishery only caught about 12,000 tons last year, so they’re figured as reductions even though they’re already fishing well below that level. Indonesia’s limit is three times its recorded average. And, last year, Korea went well over its limit, whereas the U.S. has been assiduous in closing its fishery before it reaches its limits. So, the problem for bigeye won’t be solved until there are major reductions in the catch of juveniles in the purse seine fishery.”

Challenges of the Sea

Of course, down on Pier 38, none of these controversies change the natural rhythms of the fishing boats. For fishermen, it’s always about the fish. That’s certainly the case for Pete Grillo, who’s been fishing in Hawaii for 12 years. He came to Hawaii from the Northeast, where he was captain of a dragger boat, but became disillusioned with fishery regulators there, and moved to Hawaii and joined the longline fleet, first as a deckhand, then as a captain and owner. He talks about the challenges facing the modern captain. It’s certainly different than the old days, when a captain depended on a thermometer and dash of luck.

Today, a captain needs to be a little more tech-savvy.

“It’s knowing how to read and interpret the satellite water data that we get. Also, having the capacity to pay attention to the details: Am I catching enough every day to stay here? Am I seeing many fish in this area or that area? Would a small move benefit me or should I take a day off and travel to another spot?  There’s a lot of decision-making and analyzing your daily statistics.”

Fishing is still a back-breaking profession. “As in any business,” Grillo says, “some people want to and will work harder than others. Other people don’t want to sacrifice sleep for production. Some of us will sacrifice just about all the sleep we can for more production. On my boat, a normal workday is 18 to 20 hours. It’s about six hours to set the gear and 12 or 13 hours to haul the gear. Some of the boats might run a four-man crew on the deck; as a captain, I like to run a five- or a six-man crew plus the captain. That way I can let guys rotate out and get some sleep while still keeping the operation going. That way, everybody will get their four or five hours off a day to sleep, but at different times of the day. Guys will rotate in and out and get naps, kind of like they’re doing the swing shift. But operations are running 18 to 20 hours a day.”

But, in the end, it pays for a fisherman to remember that the sea is always in command. Grillo describes a fishing trip from four or five years ago:

“We were way out beyond the Northwest Island chain, about 800 miles above the Leeward Islands. There was a big storm coming through, but we were on some really good fish, catching 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of fish a day – nice, beautiful quality fish. At the time, there were maybe 25-foot to 30-foot seas – maybe for a couple of days, 30-foot-plus – and it was blowing 50 knots to 60 knots for well over a week.

“A lot of the guys out there were just drifting, chugging into the weather. Me, coming from the Northeast, I thought, ‘This isn’t so bad. After all, it’s still 70 degrees out here.’ So, we just kept fishing. But one night, in the height of the storm, it had been blowing 60 knots plus all day and all night, and we were hauling gear back up, coming up into the weather, when we took a really big wave over the side of the boat. I was in bed at the time and it knocked me out of my bunk. I got back up and looked out and the guys were still hauling the gear, everybody was safe, everything was still intact, the boat was still moving ahead, so I went back to sleep. The next morning, I let the guys get off the deck and have a little breakfast before we got back to setting our gear again, and I went up on the bow to look for birds or fish in the water, and saw the port bow rail was bent in about a foot or so.

“It’s amazing what the ocean can do to your boat, even the biggest of boats.” 

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