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Suit gaffs new tuna rule

    FILE - In this May 12, 2009 file photo, bigeye tuna line the floor of the United Fishing Agency's auction house in Honolulu. 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. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner, File)

Environmental groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service on Thursday to challenge a new rule for fishing bigeye tuna, a popular species for sushi and fish steaks.

The regulation undermines international efforts to end overfishing of bigeye, said the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court by environmental law firm Earthjustice on behalf of the Conservation Council for Hawaii and two other groups.

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which regulates commercial fishing between Indonesia and Hawaii, has established an annual quota of 3,763 metric tons of bigeye for U.S.-flagged longline vessels in the central and western Pacific.

But the lawsuit says the National Marine Fisheries Service’s new rule invents separate additional catch limits for three U.S. Pacific territories: American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mari­ana Islands. The rule then allows the territories to allocate up to half of their catch limit to Hawaii-based longline fishing vessels. This nearly doubles the amount of bigeye that U.S. ships may catch in the central and western Pacific, the lawsuit said.

The complaint asked the court to void the rule and declare the agency in violation of federal law.

The National Marine Fisheries Service office in Hono­lulu couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Earthjustice attorney David Hen­kin said the U.S. should lead by example. "We’re not going to be able to solve the overfishing problem for bigeye unless all nations play by the rules," Hen­kin said in a statement.

Longline fishing vessels string a line in the ocean, ranging from 1 mile to 50 miles long, to catch fish. They run smaller lines with baited hooks off the central line and wait for bait to attract fish.

About 90 percent of the bigeye caught in the western and central Pacific last year, however, is estimated to have been fished by a different type of ship called purse seine vessels, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trust.

Purse seine vessels, which are large industrial ships that use giant nets to surround and capture schools of tuna, also catch juvenile bigeye, which harms the future spawning potential of the population.

Longline ships catch adult bigeye.


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