U.S. based organization raises concerns over attempt to eliminate swordfish trip limits
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The US-based Center for Biological Diversity has raised several issues over a proposed federal rule to eliminate swordfish trip limits in the American Samoa Pelagic Longline Fishery.
The Center’s concerns have reignited complaints from those in the local longline fishery about off-island individuals and organizations getting involved with fishery matters in American Samoa, where fishery is important to the economy and livelihood of families.
According to the Center, the proposed regulatory amendment would eliminate a requirement of Fishery Ecosystem Plan (FEP) for Pelagic Fisheries of the Western Pacific’s Amendment 5 — Reducing Interactions between the American Samoa Longline Fishery and Green Sea Turtles.
Specifically the language that says that when fishing south of the Equator, “[n]o more than 10 swordfish may be possessed or landed during a single fishing trip.”
The notice for the proposed regulation, issued by the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) states that the limit was “part of a suite of gear and operational requirements intended to discourage shallow-set fishing, thus reducing interactions with green sea turtles.”
“Because green sea turtle interactions continue to occur in the fishery at a level that requires mitigation,” the Center said NMFS “should withdraw the proposed rule.”
The Center’s senior attorney Catherine W. Kilduff, informed NMFS — through a letter last month — that statement in the public notice announcing the proposed rule that gear requirements have reduced green sea turtle interactions “is unsupported”.
Kilduff points out that the American Samoa longline fishery’s interaction rate with green sea turtles “in 2018 was the highest since 2006” — based on a report last year. Furthermore, from July 2015 through 2018, twelve observed green sea turtle interactions “result in an expanded fleet-wide total of approximately 60 interactions.
Based on this data, Kilduff said NMFS has not completed consultation under the Endangered Species Act since reinitiating it on April 3, 2019.
“In the alternative, if NMFS eliminates the swordfish trip limit it must only do so for the American Samoa longline fishery — i.e. vessels with an American Samoa longline limited access permit,” according to Kilduff, who suggested that the trip limit should remain in place for other vessels holding a valid longline permit that fish in high seas south of the Equator.
For example, vessels with a Western Pacific general longline permit or a Hawaii longline limited access permit fishing on the high seas may land in American Samoa.
While fishing north of the Equator, longline vessels have strict swordfish limits when no observer is on board. Eliminating limits fishing south of the Equator could incentivize a shift in effort in other U.S. longline fisheries and cause unintended environmental impacts.
Kilduff recommends that NMFS revise the Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) to consider this effort shift if the final rule is not limited in application to the American Samoa longline fishery.
Kilduff also recommends that NMFS must complete consultation on the American Samoa longline fishery in order to ensure its operations do not jeopardize endangered species like leatherback sea turtles.
She points out that American Samoa longline fishery has landed catch in California, which suggests that fishing effort has shifted to the East Pacific Ocean.
“The impact of the American Samoa longline fishery in the Eastern Pacific Ocean may have a much bigger impact on the declining leatherback population than when fishing in the western Pacific,” she wrote.
“We are especially concerned that increased longline fishing immediately outside the Exclusive Economic Zone off California will exacerbate the decline of the leatherback sea turtle,” she explained.
“For this reason, NMFS should not finalize the rule unless it first completes consultation on the American Samoa fishery,” she said.
In conclusion, Kilduff said NMFS failed to provide evidence that the swordfish limit that protects green sea turtles from interactions with the longline fishery south of the Equator is no longer necessary.
“The environmental impacts of such a change are unclear because it could create an incentive for U.S. longline fisheries other than the American Samoa fishery to fish south of the Equator,” she said.
NMFS should complete its Endangered Species Act biological opinion before finalizing the rule, she points out.
Deadline to submit comments on the proposed rule was July 14 — which was only 15-days after the notice was first published. Kilduff said this time frame is not sufficient for public comments and suggested a 60-day period to accept comments for such an important fishery issue. It’s unclear at press time if NMFS will expand the comment period. (For information: www.regulations.gov).
Two residents involved in fishery told Samoa News last week of their disappointment of the continued “interference” by off-island individuals and organizations on fishery regulations and rules in American Samoa.
“These people don’t know what we deal with in American Samoa and over the years these off island groups and individuals continue to make comments, suggestions, and recommendations on American Samoa fishery issues that they are not here on island to observe,” said one of the two local residents, who complained to Samoa News about the Kilduff’s letter.
The argued that local fishery has so many “federal regulations” and have already gone through the appropriate required oversight — such as discussions and meetings — through the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council.
The proposed rule followed a recommendation Council, whose executive director, Kitty M. Simonds tells NMFS last month that regulatory amendment and its associated proposed rule, both criteria have been met, and there is no reason not to implement these regulations.
“The purpose of this regulatory amendment is to support the American Samoa longline fishery by eliminating regulatory discards of swordfish and increasing efficiency,” Simonds wrote. (See Samoa News edition July 15th for details.)