Year-end Landings of Bigeye Tuna by Hawaii Deep-set Longline Fleet Monitored

2011 held a surprise ending for the Hawaii-based deep-set longline fishery. As in the previous two years, the fishery's haul of bigeye tuna in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) was projected to reach the fleet's annual bigeye catch limit before the important year-end holiday season when the demand for tuna sashimi in Hawaii skyrockets. The 2011 WCPO catch limit for the U.S. fleet was established at 3,763 metric tons by NMFS to comply with bigeye tuna conservation measures of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. PIFSC carefully conducted daily monitoring of the Hawaii bigeye landings throughout the season, and on November 18 NMFS published a temporary ruling to close the U.S. longline fishery for bigeye tuna in the WCPO on November 27, 2011.

However, by an act of Congress (described further below), broader options were established for attributing the fleet's WCPO longline bigeye catch against U.S. and Territorial catch limits. As a result, NMFS withdrew the temporary ruling on November 28 and Hawaii longline vessels were allowed to continue their harvest of bigeye tuna in the WCPO. The surprise turn of events made things interesting for fishers, fish dealers, and fishery managers. Many longline vessels that returned to port prior to the expected November 27 closure date had either contemplated making a fishing trip in the Eastern Pacific Ocean (EPO), or simply tying up until after the New Year. Further, the uncertainty about fish supply had prompted buyers at the Honolulu fish auction to consider importing tuna during the holidays. But once news of the closure cancellation became available, many vessels went fishing in the WCPO again.

The cancellation of the fishery closure was due to a law passed by Congress and signed by President Obama on November 18. Section 113 of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2012 [which funded much of the federal government for fiscal year 2012] provided Hawaii-based U.S. longline vessels with a new option for attributing their catch and enabled the Hawaii fleet to avoid reaching the U.S. catch limit. The accompanying table shows how the bigeye catches in 2011 were attributed against the U.S. and Territorial (American Samoa) catch limits. Under the new Act, vessels holding only the Hawaii permit could attribute bigeye caught on or after November 19 to the American Samoa limit, rather than the U.S. 3,763 catch limit, regardless of where the fish were caught or landed in the WCPO, provided they had entered into an agreement with American Samoa to do so. This new category of vessels included all vessels landing their catch in Hawaii in 2011.

2011 Pacific Longline Fishery Bigeye Tuna Catch (as of 20 January 2012)
Fishing Area Catch Attribution Vessel Category Catch (t)
WCPFC U.S. Hawaii permitted vessels, fish caught through November 18 (based on logbooks received through January 20, 2012) 3,580
  American Samoa American Samoa/Hawaii dual permitted vessels for trips landing in Hawaii, fish caught outside Hawaii EEZ 464
    Vessels with American Samoa licenses for trips landing in American Samoa* 173
    Hawaii-permitted vessels with American Samoa arrangements; bigeye caught after November 18 and landed in Hawaii (excluding dual permitted catch listed above) 652
  Total Total catch for all vessels, WCPFC Area 4,868
IATTC U.S. Catch by vessels >24 m in length 346
    Total catch by all vessels, IATTC Area 1,036
* For American Samoa-licensed vessels landing in American Samoa, the 2011 total is unavailable. The 5-yr average catch is 173 t; the 2010 catch was 176 t.

The bigeye tuna catch in the WCPFC Area from fishing that would otherwise have been subject to the WCPFC catch limit, were it not for the passage of new legislation is presently estimated to have been 652 metric tons worth $6.5 million ex-vessel at an estimated (preliminary) price of $4.50/lb. About 608 metric tons of this catch, valued at about $6 million was caught on or after the date (November 27) that bigeye tuna retention would otherwise have been prohibited in the WCPFC Area for U.S. vessels with only Hawaii licenses. The North Pacific portion of the catch, throughout the year, as assigned to various sectors of the longline fishery, is shown in the following graph.

The bigeye tuna catch rose steadily throughout 2011. Catches in the WCPFC Area attributed to the U.S. catch limit of 3763 
               metric tons reached a plateau of 3580 tons on November 18 as further catches by Hawaii-permitted vessels were attributed 
               to the American Samoa catch limit.
The bigeye tuna catch rose steadily throughout 2011. Catches in the WCPFC Area attributed to the U.S. catch limit of 3763 metric tons reached a plateau of 3580 tons on November 18 as further catches by Hawaii-permitted vessels were attributed to the American Samoa catch limit.

The PIFSC Fisheries Monitoring and Analysis Program kept track of fishing effort and number of fish caught using federal longline logbooks submitted by the vessel captains. PIFSC staff in the Western Pacific Fisheries Information Network (WPacFIN) Program also monitored the average weight of fish landed for sale, in cooperation with the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources and marine fish dealers. As the announced November 27 closure date approached, the volume of fish coming in to dealers was high, but dropped off after the closure was cancelled. Longline landings rebounded the week before Christmas, and then slacked off a bit. These fluctuations at the auction may have affected tuna prices, which were high in early December, went down somewhat before Christmas and rose again the week before New Year's Day.