Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Half of Hawaii's Bottomfishing Restricted Areas Opening Up

A long-simmering dispute over the state’s Bottomfishing Restricted Areas (BRFA’s) between Hawaii’s fishing community and the state’s Department of Natural Resources and fisheries scientists has resulted in a move by the state to open six BRFAs and keep six BRFAs closed.

The state will also increase the recreational daily bag limit for the seven deepwater bottomfish species from a total of five to a total of 10. A voluntary non-commercial reporting option may be included. Monitoring of the BRFAs would continue based on available funding.

The decision by the state to open up the six BRFA’s was announced at the March 21 meeting of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (WPRFM) in Guam. The announcement of the decision by Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources chairman William Aila to open the six BRFA’s was made by Alton Miyasaka of the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources.

Miyasaka explained that in the BRFAs to remain closed, research has been conducted in four of them for seven years while research may yet be initiated in the other two areas.

Hawaii’s BRFAs are located in both state and federal waters and were created in the 1990s when local depletion of some bottomfish species known as the Deep 7 in the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) was a concern. Currently, the bottomfish stocks are considered healthy, with no overfishing occurring and no stocks overfished. The Deep 7 bottomfish species include six snappers (Lutjanidae) in the subfamily Etelinae and one grouper (Serranidae), the Hawaiian grouper Hyporthodus quernus.

The WPRFM’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) reviewed the recommendations of the MHI Bottomfish Working Group. It was suggested that the Council could open the portions of the BRFAs located within federal waters.

Council Executive Director Kitty Simonds noted that this option was under review and that a number of the National Standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) justify the elimination of MHI BRFAs in federal waters.

The SSC had previously recommended that all BRFAs be eliminated in federal waters and the State be encouraged to remove all BRFAs in State waters as well. The SSC said the utility of the BRFAs to manage the bottomfish fishery has been superseded by mandatory annual catch limits (ACLs) that have been established based on the best scientific information available. Subsequent to establishment of the BRFAs in the 1990s, both state and federal fishery managers implemented total allowable catch for bottomfish in 2007 and annual catch limits since 2011. The Council supported its SSC recommendation continuing to call for the removal of the BRFAs within federal waters and encourage that the State removes the BRFAs within state waters.

That recommendation was opposed by SSC member Miyasaka at the time it was made. “The state’s position is that the closed areas provide an extra level of management,” he said. “The federal agencies feel it’s not necessary to have state regulation. They like some of the things we do, but not everything.”

Fishing for bottomfish in federal waters around Hawaii (3-200 nm offshore) is managed under the Fishery Ecosystem Plan for the Hawaiian Archipelago.

To limit fishing mortality and conserve bottomfish stocks at levels that support healthy fisheries, Federal regulations implementing the plan include a quota (annual catch limit) for Deep 7 bottomfish.

The quota is specified each fishing year using the best available scientific information collected by the State of Hawaii and NOAA Fisheries Service, including commercial and non-commercial fishing data and other information, and considers the associated risk of overfishing.

When the quota is reached, all fishing (commercial and non-commercial) for Deep 7 species is prohibited in Federal waters around the MHI for the remainder of the fishing year. There is no prohibition on fishing for other bottomfish species throughout the year. When the quota is reached, the State of Hawaii will also close waters from the shoreline out to three nautical miles (State waters).

The SSC noted that the Makapu`u and Penguin Bank BRFAs, which the State proposes to keep closed, are the most important fishing areas for fishermen from three islands. Their closures have created the greatest economic hardship of all the existing BRFAs for fishermen, as well social interaction issues through the crowding of effort into the remaining open areas.

A fisherman provided public comment noting that the Makapu`u BRFA creates economic burdens and safety concerns because fishermen have to travel further to alternate fishing grounds. He said keeping the BRFA closed due to the existence of a precious coral bed in the area is not justified because fishermen do not fish in the area of the Makapu`u BRFA that includes the bed.

Ed Ebisui, Council vice chair from Hawaii, thanked the State for opening six BRFAs, but said it didn’t go far enough. “We have the ability to be self-sufficient and we fish responsibly … but it doesn’t get us anywhere but more regulations. … I go to Costco and see imports from countries that are unregulated,” he said. “It is ironic that our imports encourage international illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing… The BRFAs have outlived their usefulness,” he added.

This will not be the first time the number of Hawaii’s BRFA’s has been cut back. There were originally 19 BRFA’s established in 1998, that number was cut to 12 in 2002. The SSC suggested that either a stock assessment be made in the BRFAs before they are opened or catch and effort reporting requirements be made for all vessels that fish in these areas after they are opened.

The state has been sponsoring habitat and stock assessment research since the BRFA’s were first established. The cutbacks in the number of BRFA’s were partially the results of that research.

One of the principal methods the state’s researchers have used to determine the effectiveness of the BRFA’s is the use of a baited stereo botcam that is lowered to a depth where it makes video and still recordings of any fish and the surrounding habitat. The botcam has provided the researchers data about the types of fish that can be found in the differing habitats at depth.

“We looked at seven years of data before we made the decision to cut back,” said Miyasaka. “We had thoroughly surveyed four areas out of twelve, we had varying degrees of data on those four and we want to do more research.”

The main criticism of using the botcam data to justify maintaining the closed BRFA’s to fishing has been Charles Daxboeck, SSC chair. There is no baseline for the research, he said, noting that should have been done when the BRFAs were established. At this point, to establish a baseline, Daxboeck said, the areas should be opened and fished with both commercial and non-commercial fishermen reporting their catches.

The SSC recommended in their June 2013 meeting that a simulation study be conducted to examine whether or not the exclusion of the BRFAS from the bottomfish stock assessment affects the results. When the SSC recommended BRFAs there was no other management process to address overfishing of bottomfish. Since then, the fishery has been stringently managed through Annual Catch Limits.

The SSC recommends that Council staff develop a process for future treatment of the BRFAs including eliminating some or all of the BRFAs, and developing a monitoring program. This should be developed through the Council process, including consultation with experienced deep bottom fishermen of Hawaii.

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