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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

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Hawaii longliners landed nearly 11 million pounds of bigeye tuna in 2012. That meant Hawaii boats caught nearly 80 percent of all the bigeye tuna landed in U.S. ports. Ahi is the name Hawaii residents use for both bigeye tuna and yellowfin tuna.

Beginnings of Change

It didn’t take long for that explosion to start having effects on how the longline fleet interacted with other fishermen, Martin says.

“When the longline fishery was relatively small – 30 or 35 boats – we all sort of did our thing. But when all these new boats started showing up, there was significant conflict between different gear users. There were ‘shots fired,’ I guess you might say.

Then, Bill Paley, who was chairman of DLNR at the time, and was on the Fishery Management Council, brokered an agreement – at that time it was called a ‘gentleman’s agreement,’ later on it became regulation – to keep the fleets separated. So, to preserve some opportunity for the small-boat guys, we entered into a regime in which there were some areas nearshore where longline boats couldn’t fish. Right now, there are still closed areas close to the Islands – 50 to 75 miles, depending on where you’re at – where longline fishing is prohibited. That was really put in place not for any scientific reason, but for keeping the fleets separate.”

By 1991, Martin says, additional regulations began to affect the longline fishery. “As the fleet grew, there was significant concern that the growth was going to get out of hand. The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, commonly known as Wespac, is the regulatory body with responsibility outside of state waters – from 12 miles to 200 miles, in theory, but it’s actually from 12 miles out to wherever boats fish. They began putting into effect management regimes to limit new entrants getting into the fishery, as well as other regulations, like vessel-size limits and those kinds of things. They started that process in 1991, and, by 1994, there was a pretty comprehensive limited-entry program for the longline fishery in Hawaii so it couldn’t grow unfettered. Today, there are only 164 permits in the fishery, and have been since 1994; so that kind of stopped the growth. But, although all 164 permits are owned, they’re not all used. They’re freely transferable, so there have been some changes over the years. Somebody gets out, retires, maybe their boat sinks, whatever. Maybe they sell their permit and somebody comes in and fills the void. Traditionally, there have been about 130 boats, plus or minus, active in the fishery for the last 20 years.”

Jon Brodziak, a statistical mathematician at the National Marine Fisheries Service, is part of the team of scientists who evaluate bigeye and swordfish stocks for the Hawaii fishery.

Evolving Regulations

Despite this apparent stability, fishing in Hawaii has always been tumultuous. In recent years, most of the upheaval in the longline fishery has been because of changes in environmental regulations, particularly rules stemming from the Marine Mammals Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. These laws have forced fishermen – historically, the cowboys of the sea – to behave like shepherds. And more and more, that has put the fate of the fishery into the hands of scientists and bureaucrats.

It started with the birds. Longliners, particularly the so-called shallow-set fishery that targets swordfish (swordfish boats need the same permit as the bigeye boats, but use slightly different gear), used to catch hundreds of albatross each year. As the fishermen baited their hooks and tossed them over the stern, the big birds would swoop in and snatch the bait, often getting snagged by the hook. Because albatross are considered an endangered species under the ESA, beginning in 2002, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which regulates the fishing industry, required the longliners to develop new techniques to reduce the mortality rate for albatross and other seabirds.

The changes that the longliners came up with have been remarkably effective and are visible to anyone who looks at the fleet.

On most types of fishing boats, the stern is left clear to accommodate the fishing gear. Trawlers deploy their booms and nets from the stern. Trollers have their outriggers there. On aku boats, the stern is kept open to leave room for the fishermen at the transom and to accommodate the big-fish holds and live-bait wells. But on the Hawaii longliner, the stern is often conspicuously occupied by a low house built of steel or tarpaulin-covered metal tubing. Frequently, the roof of this house is encumbered with hundreds of small buoys that are used to float the line when it’s deployed at sea. They give the longliners a cluttered, yard-sale look in port.

The actual work on a longliner usually takes place amidships. The big drum of monofilament line is stowed here. As crew bait the hooks and snap the long leaders on the line, a machine called a line thrower pulls the line off the drum and sends it arcing over the side of the boat. The leaders are spaced about 110 feet apart and the line comes off the line thrower a little faster than the boat’s cruising speed, so the baited hook has time to sink in the water before it’s passed by the stern of the boat.

That’s what keeps the albatrosses from getting at the bait, and what gives the Hawaii longline fishing boat its particular profile.

Probably the most high-profile ecological problem for longliners has been the sea turtle. Much like albatross, turtles – mostly leatherbacks and loggerheads – used to target the longliners’ bait and sometimes swallow the hooks or become entangled in the lines. Before the turtles could be brought on deck, they were often badly injured and many were believed to die after they were released. As a result, NMFS forced the longliners to make more changes. They had to change their bait from squid to bait fish, like sonma or mackerel, because bait fish were more difficult for the turtles to eat than squid. They were also required to change tackle to big circle hooks, because the turtles had small mouths and were less likely to bite a big hook, and the circle hook is less likely to snag.

But the biggest change was to limit the fleet’s “interactions” with turtles. To minimize turtle mortality, the NMFS required the entire shallow-set fishery to shut down for the rest of the year once the fleet hooked or seriously injured either 17 loggerheads or 16 leatherbacks. In 2006, they reached 17 interactions with loggerheads by March 20, and in 2011, they reached 16 leatherback interactions by Nov. 18. In both cases, the fishery closed for the rest of the year. (Under court order, the swordfish fishery was also shut down from 2001 to 2004, prompting many swordfish boats to move to California.) Not surprisingly, these new regulations were highly unpopular with the fishermen, who always believed the scientists’ estimates for turtle mortality were too high and for turtle population too low.

To ensure compliance, NMFS created an observer program for the longline fishery, the first of its kind in the country. Since 2004, 100 percent of the swordfish boats – the so-called “shallow-set fishery” – have carried a NOAA observer. In the deep-set tuna fishery, there are observers on 20 percent of the boats. The observers aren’t enforcement officers; they’re there to gather data on the fishery – for example, the size, species and quantity of fish caught – and to keep track of turtle interactions and issues related to the Marine Mammals Protection Act. By law, the fishing-boat owners are required to provide accommodations for the observers. But the longliners are small boats; they generally go out with just a captain and a crew of five or six, and many owners resent the intrusion of the observers. Nevertheless, the longliners are quick to point out that, since the program was introduced 10 years ago, turtle interactions have plummeted almost 90 percent. As a result, three years ago, NMFS proposed raising the limits on turtle interactions to 34 loggerheads and 26 leatherbacks.

“We haven’t approached those numbers in years,” Martin says. “Not in interactions, let alone mortality.”

Science’s View

Perhaps the most important result of the observer program has been the trove of longliner catch data. Fishery managers in other regions often have other sources of stock data. In the U.S. Northeast, for example, NMFS has its own research vessels and can conduct independent sampling to assess the stock abundance and size. (Fishermen in the Northeast, though, frequently disagree with their assessments, complaining that scientists use different gear and fishing methods than professional fishermen, so their catch data are incompatible with actual fishing conditions.) But for Hawaii waters, observer data are sometimes the only data available to fisheries managers.

One of the main uses of the observer data has been to help researchers assess the health of the fish stocks for Hawaii’s longline and bottomfish fisheries. These data are equivocal. For example, fishermen say the average size of the fish caught has remained fairly stable (albeit in slight decline), which might indicate that the fishery isn’t over-harvesting the larger fish. That’s important because fish have to reach a certain age before they can reproduce. Large fish also have lower natural mortality rates – they’re less likely to be eaten by other fish, for example. But other data suggest the total population of fish is shrinking.

Catch-per-unit-effort, or CPUE, has been slowly declining for many years. That means, for every thousand hooks set by the longliners, each year they catch fewer bigeye and swordfish.

It’s hard to know what to make of this conflicting data. Jon Brodziak, a statistical mathematician who works on stock assessment at NMFS, points out that there’s also a lot of natural variability in a complex ecosystem like the marine fishery.

“The ocean changes every year,” he says. “Productivity is up and down. The climate system is fluctuating. We have El Nino years, we’ve got La Nina years, and we’ve got mid-range years for environmental conditions.” Fishermen often point to this natural variability as the real cause of stock declines. Even as lobster stocks plummeted in the Northeast, for example, many lobstermen insisted it was a normal fluctuation in population. Fishermen in general are suspicious of scientific data of the fisheries.

Partly, that’s because of the abstract and contingent nature of science. For example, most of the stock-assessment methods rely on statistical modeling, a process many fisherman find arcane. By looking at how catch rates change through time, scientists create a sort of proxy for a direct count of fish, which, of course, is impossible. “If standardized,” Brodziak says, “the catch rate is an observation, with error, of the relative abundance. But, in this process, you also have to account for changes in the fishery through time. Those changes might include spatial effects – where you fish; they may include changes in fishing gear or the deployment of fishing gear; and they may include other factors, like which species you’re targeting. If you’re looking, say, at billfish species in the Hawaii longline fishery, we know most of the captains aren’t targeting billfish. They’re targeting bigeye tuna or yellowfin tuna, or perhaps swordfish for the shallow-set fishery. For the most part, they’re not targeting striped marlin, but that sampling is still providing us with information on the relative abundance and change in abundance of striped marlin through time.”

One recent example of how scientists use fishery observer data is an intriguing paper by Jeffery Polovina, a researcher and assistant director at NOAA’s Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center. By looking at data like catch rates, catch effort (the number of hooks set, for example), and changes in the size and types of fish caught, Polovina and his co-author, Phoebe Woodworth-Jefcoats, tried to quantify the effect of the longline fishery on the pelagic ecosystem.

The high-quality ahi sold at the Honolulu Fish Auction (above) is landed by a ragtag fleet of longliners based largely out of Pier 38.

“We’ve been using the 15 years of observer data from the deep-set long-line fishery,” Polovina says, “and we’ve seen a real change in the species composition and the size structure of the catch. All the real top predators of the ecosystem – the marlins, the tunas, the sharks – have been declining in relative abundance, as indicated by catch rates. The catch-rates have gone down 2 percent to 7 percent per year over the last 15 years. And what’s been coming up in catch rates are noncommercial fish, like lancetfish and snake mackerel, plus a few commercial species, like mahimahi and escolar and pomfret.” In fact, lancetfish and snake mackerel now account for more than 30 percent of the total longline catch. There’s no market for them, though; fishermen toss them back in the sea.

Fishermen like to say that the average size of the tuna and swordfish they catch has remained in the 75-pound to 90-pound range for the last decade or so. That may not comport exactly with other observations – observer data show a slight decline – but, like most NOAA scientists, Polovina doesn’t think the industry’s current fishing levels are bringing the fishery close to collapse. “Of course,” he says, “it’s sort of like predicting the stock-market collapse: It’s always easier in hindsight; sometimes you just can’t see it until after it happens. But I don’t think the pelagic ecosystem is on the verge of a collapse. There are limits on the catch. They may be too high, but they are starting to ratchet down the amount of effort in the harvest, at least for some key species, and that impacts fishing effort for the whole ecosystem. That’s a positive development. Likewise, in the bottom-fish fishery, there’s an annual catch limit also. That’s at least putting a stop to rising fishing mortality levels. If needed, we have the potential to reduce that.”

What concerns Polovina, though, is how the impact from longlining dovetails with broader ecological issues. “We’re facing a combination of top-down pressure from fishing,” he says, “and, going forward, bottom-up pressure from climate change, which we think reduces the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. That means the pelagic ecosystem is facing stress. And for now, we’re only measuring it or seeing it from the catch data. There may be other things that are changing that we’re not even seeing.

Maybe other species are changing – squid or gelatinous organisms that we’re not able to monitor – so there may be bigger effects than what we see now just looking at the longline catch.”

When Polivina presented this information, the fishermen were unimpressed. They pointed out that, even if the catch rates for bigeye and swordfish are declining, the market price for these fish is rising fast enough to keep pace. The longliners are also in the unique position that much of their “by-catch” – the mahimahi, opah and pomfret – also brings good prices in the marketplace.

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