Hawaii fishermen are pondering how to deliver a steady supply of ahi to the islands after overfishing concerns prompted regulators to cap the annual catch of the popular fish for the first time last year.
Isle fishermen, like their counterparts elsewhere, are having to restrict their take of the species in the western and central Pacific to make sure the bigeye tuna population doesn’t collapse. The challenge here is finding a way to abide by these rules while also bringing a steady flow of tuna for consumers to have their sashimi, poke and other isle favorites.
If Hawaii’s fishermen don’t succeed, they could permanently lose market share to imports of bigeye caught by overseas competitors, which is sometimes brought in frozen.
"The consistency of market supply, particularly through the holidays, we all recognize is of utmost importance," said Sean Martin, president of the Hawaii Longline Association.
Last year the industry had a brief scare when it appeared the local longline fleet of roughly 120 boats would reach its annual quota for bigeye caught west of Hawaii in early December. It would have left Hawaii without locally caught ahi several weeks before consumer demand peaked for the New Year’s holiday.
The forecast ultimately turned out to be several weeks off, and the fishermen were allowed to continue to haul bigeye through Dec. 29, giving them plenty of time to feed Hawaii through the holiday.
But the problem hasn’t gone away: Scientists say this year the fishery is once again on course to hit its western and central Pacific annual catch limit of 3,763 metric tons in early December. If the Dec. 8 prediction is right this time, the ahi provided by Hawaii’s fleet could drop sharply just before New Year’s.
Fishermen would likely still be allowed to fish for bigeye in waters east of Hawaii, an area regulated separately from the west. But bigeye has traditionally not been as plentiful there.
Scientists are studying several ways fishermen might be able to avoid an annual year-end supply crisis.
One proposal being weighed is changing the fishing year. The limit currently goes by the calendar year, but the industry could instead apply it to a 12-month period from November to October, or September to August. This way the fishery wouldn’t have to close just before the important year-end holidays even if the annual catch limit is reached midway through the 12 months.
Paul Dalzell, senior scientist at the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, said this approach could have problems too, however.
Calculations show the fishery would likely hit its annual quota in May if it adopted a September-to-August fishing year, forcing the fishery to close for three months. This is because the industry has historically hauled most of its bigeye between October and February.
Another option would be to restrict the number of hooks on the fishing lines boats dangle in the ocean, or limit the number of times the ships go out.
The problem is that fishermen could still prematurely hit their quota if they have a bumper crop, said Martin, who also sits on the council, an advisory body responsible for managing fishing in U.S. waters around Hawaii, Guam and other parts of the Western Pacific.
The industry could also follow the example of fisheries elsewhere, like the black cod and halibut fisheries in Alaska, that use individual quotas to manage the overall haul.
Under this "catch share" system, fishermen, cooperatives or companies are given specific volumes they’re allowed to catch each year. It’s up to them to choose when to catch the fish and bring it to market. Studies have found fishermen make more money by fishing less when they no longer have to race to get their supply.
Dalzell and regional fishery management council staff plan to approach Hawaii’s longline fishermen in coming months to discuss the possibilities. It’s up to the fishermen to decide what method they’ll use, Dalzell said, noting they might decide they like the current system best.
Regardless, they’ll want to pay attention to any new decisions by international regulators.
The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which imposed the 3,763 metric ton cap, will meet again in December and discuss possible new limits for next year and beyond. The current quota applied only to 2009 and 2010.
The commission, which regulates commercial fishing between Indonesia and Hawaii, will base its decision on the conclusions of a committee of scientists that’s scheduled to meet in Tonga next month.