The morning began at sunrise as we ventured down to Pier 38 for the Honolulu Fish Auction to experience how ~20,000 pounds of fresh fish get sold and to meet Sean Martin, President of the Hawaiian Longline Association, former chair of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, and Co-owner of POP Fishing and Marine.
The fish at the auction were caught by members of the Hawaiian Longline Association (HLA), which has 140 active vessels. A typical pelagic longline trip in Hawaii will last about three weeks, with the most aggressive vessels in the fleet spending as much as 270 days a year out at sea, fishing up to 1200 miles from Oahu (for an idea of scale, that is half way to San Diego). About two-thirds of the fish sold in the auction remain in Hawaii, with the remaining third heading to the mainland, and only a tiny fraction going abroad. Contrary to popular belief, “we don’t have to export much of the product because we are importing the market,” Sean explained to us, referring to the tourists.
Regardless of where they fish, as U.S. vessels, they fish under a complex series of regulations designed to reduce by catch. These include modifications to the terminal tackle (leaders and hooks), to ensure that if a false killer whale is hooked, the hook will straighten, thus releasing the hooked cetacean. The false killer whales move along the main line (which can extend for 40 nautical miles) and consume tuna and bait off the hooks. This is costly for the fishermen and dangerous for the false killer whales, some of which are endangered.
In addition to working to reduce bycatch, the fishery must deal with the condition of the bigeye (ahi) tuna stock, which is being overfished. Sean Martin noted that catch rates in the longline fishery have remained relatively stable, but the catch from the purse seine fishery in the Western and Central Pacific has increased, which has led to increased pressure on the stock. Currently, the longline fishery accounts for about half of the catch in the Western and Central Pacific. The quota is determined by two international bodies – the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), west of 150°W, and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) to the east.
And if all that wasn’t enough, the fishery is also facing pressure here in U.S. waters. Some Hawaiian groups have called for a proposed expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which would reduce available fishing grounds. The proposal would expand the current 50-nautical mile boundary around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to the full extent of the 200 nautical mile EEZ, reducing the available fishing area by 8-10% for the HLA vessels.
Despite it all, Hawaiian longline vessels have persevered and prospered. But where should we draw the line?