New Restrictions on Hawaii Seafood Industry

Aug 10, 2018

A blue marlin hooked off the coast of Madeira, Portugal.
Credit Phil / Flickr

Overfishing is a concern around the world and here in Hawaii. A new conservation law just signed by President Trump stands to significantly change the way commercial fisherman in Hawaii and U.S. Pacific Territories bring their catch to market. 

Billfish are some of the most prized catches in the world of sport fishing. That category includes species like swordfish, marlin, and sailfish. They were so popular with both trophy hunters and commercial operators that by the 1980’s stocks of billfish in the Atlantic had plummeted.

That led Congress to pass a law banning the commercial harvesting of billfish in U.S. Atlantic waters. But billfish are highly migratory and live in deep water – the kind of habitat found in international waters. 15 years after the U.S. ban, billfish sticks worldwide were still declining.

Eric Kingma is the International Fisheries Enforcement Coordinator for the Hawaii-based Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, also known as WESPAC. He told HPR that approximately 550,000 pounds of Hawaii-caught billfish are sold in the United States; a wholesale value of roughly $1 million.

But that is about to change. A bill just signed into law by President Trump eliminated the exemption given to Hawaii and U.S. Pacific Territories. Now, billfish caught in those waters can only be sold where they were caught. That may benefit Hawaii consumers in the form of lower prices but will hurt local seafood distributors.

It also means that mainland restaurants and consumers will lose their last legal source of commercially caught billfish. According to Caleb McMan with the local distributor Hawaiian Fresh Seafood, that fish sometimes fills a critical role. Although Big Eye Tuna are the primary target of commercial fishing boats, billfish can often be a substitute when tuna are scarce.

Florida Democrat Darren Soto sponsored the original bill to eliminate Hawaii’s exemption. He said that the legislation -- quote --“strikes a balance between preserving traditional cultural fishing in these areas and the overall intent to prevent large-scale commercial fishing of these billfish.”

According to WESPAC, billfish stocks in U.S. Pacific waters are already being sustainably managed in-line with international standards. NOAA’s Pacific Fisheries office declined to comment on the matter, but the agency’s Assistant Manager for Fisheries was quoted in December as saying he had full confidence in existing billfish management practices.

In June, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a letter “we believe the legislation would not advance the conservation of billfish significantly and would block a small amount of sustainably harvested domestic product from entering commerce on the U.S. mainland."

All that has Michael Lee of Garden and Valley Isle Seafood scratching his head. According to him, the U.S. portion represents only 1% of global billfish take. In his opinion, the new rules will not produce a major conservation impact.

One problem with the new rules is that billfish are what is known as “bycatch” -- they get caught by accident while trolling for other species. That means there is not much that commercial fishing boats can do to avoid them.

Local seafood distributors don’t expect to catch fewer billfish as a result of the new law – but they do expect the price of billfish in Hawaii to drop. Lower prices mean lower profit margins. That may result in dead billfish bycatch being thrown out at sea instead sold for consumption.

Seafood distributor Caleb McMan said that is getting increasingly difficult to operate in the Hawaii fishery. He described the situation as "death by a thousand cuts."