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Study: Pacific Tuna Fleets Rarely Fish In Waters Proposed For New Sanctuary

By | Honolulu Civil Beat

The analysis comes amid calls to halt marine protections that would further limit where commercial fishing can occur.

U.S. tuna fleets almost never access the far-flung reaches of the Pacific that would soon be closed to commercial fishing under a federal marine sanctuary proposal, according to a new study.

That analysis, from the University of California Santa Barbara-based Environmental Markets Lab, found that purse seiners based in American Samoa spent just over 4% of their time over the past five years in waters poised for fishing prohibitions around Howland and Baker islands as well as Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll.

Overall, there were “relatively low levels of historical fishing effort inside the currently unprotected area” that’s proposed for the restrictions, emLab concluded.

The findings come after American Samoa’s governor recently asserted that the proposed Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Sanctuary would “cripple” those islands’ tuna-dependent economy.

The emLab study did caution, however, that it’s not an assessment of “what would happen” if the sanctuary is eventually created. Rather, it’s an assessment of historical fishing trends.

President Joe Biden announced the plan in March as a way to further protect imperiled fish, sharks, sea turtles and marine mammals in the Pacific against the effects of climate change, pollution and invasive species.

Federal fisheries officials recently held their first public meetings on the proposal across Hawaii and the Northern Mariana Islands, where they heard mixed feedback from participants.

The last of those scoping meetings is slated for Wednesday in Pago Pago, American Samoa.

Currently, fishing is prohibited within 50 nautical miles of Howland, Baker, Kingman and Palmyra as part of the existing Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

The proposed sanctuary aims to extend those ocean protections out to the full U.S.-controlled 200 nautical miles.

The emLab team analyzed historical fishing in those proposed expansion areas with data from Global Fishing Watch, an online tool that compiles vessel trips using their Automatic Identification Systems, or AIS.

The researchers found that the U.S. longline fleet spent a negligible time fishing in those waters over the past five years — just 0.02%, based on the AIS data available through Global Fishing Watch.

Nonetheless, the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, which often backs commercial fishing interests, has staunchly opposed previous efforts to create and expand protected zones in the area.

Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds and agency staff attended the May 11 scoping meeting at the University of Hawaii Manoa for the sanctuary but did not testify.

After the meeting, Simonds said the agency’s goal “is to continue commercial fishing.”

“We agree with all of the ideals of the nomination and the sanctuary process,” Simonds said. “We’d just like to see them include commercial fishing, non-commercial fishing. That’s really our bottom line.”

Mark Fitchett, a Wespac pelagic fisheries ecosystem scientist, said after that meeting that the U.S. American Samoa-based purse seine fleet rarely accesses the waters poised for new protection.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not important,” he added.

Talks among nations participating in the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission could potentially limit fishing on the high seas and “are making these waters within jurisdictions more important,” he said.

Climate change could further drive tuna to be more prevalent in the central Pacific, near the current monument and proposed sanctuary, Fitchett said, “and those waters are going to become more and more important.”

Simonds and Fitchett did not respond to a request for comment on the emLab study.

Meanwhile, a formal group of Indigenous researchers, educators, deep-sea voyagers and community leaders is championing the push for further ocean protections under a new sanctuary.

The Pacific Remote Islands Coalition released a statement Monday touting the new emLab study.

“The fishing industry should embrace these marine protected areas because the science and numbers show that they help, not hinder, their fishing efforts,” PRI Coalition member Rick Gaffney said in the statement.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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