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Scientists partnered with local fishermen find Hawaiʻi's bottomfish are not being overfished

NOAA Fisheries
The cooperative research fishing vessel Naomi K and her crew in the waters of Maui Nui.

Every year for the last decade, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration join Hawaiʻi fishermen like Clay Tam to measure the abundance of bottomfish like the ʻopakapaka, hāpuʻupuʻu, and five other species known as the “Deep 7.”

The latest data from their survey found that the bottomfish stock in Hawaiʻi is relatively healthy — crucial information for any future decisions made by fishery management agencies.

Deep 7 bottomfish.jpg
NOAA Fisheries

"Onaga, ehu, lehi, kalekale, and gindai. In previous years, we had different sets of number of grids — areas we need to survey. This year we had 750. They range from South Point of the Big Island all the way to Niʻihau," Tam said.

Tam has been the fishing community lead on surveying efforts as head of the Kailua-based nonprofit Pacific Islands Fisheries Group. This year, he contracted seven boats from five islands.

"Our motto is that fishermen should be part of the solution, not the problem. And what better people to be involved in the project than the true stakeholders?" Tam told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

For many years the assessments of bottomfish stock relied heavily on fishery-dependent data such as catch reports.

NOAA Fisheries
The MOUSS stereo-video camera system being held by Dr. Benjamin Richards, lead scientist for the BFISH survey.

But Benjamin Richards, a fish biologist with NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, says there are other factors, such as market prices or the stock of fuel, that can skew data on the actual abundance of the fishery.

"The three main types of data that go into a stock assessment we call the ABCs of stock assessment. 'A' is for abundance. How many fish are there out there in the environment? 'B' is for biology. How fast are they growing? When do they start reproducing? And then 'C,' catch. How many are being removed from the environment every year," Richards said.

"So we knew we wanted to continually improve the data going into the stock assessment. And one of the best ways to do that was to develop this fishery independent survey to get at that 'A' to get at that 'abundance.'"

Richards has been the scientific lead on the Bottomfish Fisheries Independent Survey in Hawaiʻi since its inception 10 years ago

"And what that assessment has found is that as of right now the bottom fish stock in Hawaiʻi is not experiencing overfishing," Richards said. "Because it is buffered a little bit from any of these market forces, it can give a fairly precise estimate of the abundance of bottom fish out there. It helps to improve the precision and reduce the uncertainty within the stock assessment model."

Richards says the key success of the survey has been the partnership between scientists and the local fishing community. He and Tam hope this model can be expanded to other local fisheries, not just the Deep 7.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at
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