Federal quota could halt bigeye catch this month


POSTED: Thursday, December 10, 2009

Federal officials have set an unprecedented longline catch limit for a popular source of ahi tuna that could close the fishery before the end of the month.

But officials don't know if the limit on bigeye tuna will affect holiday sashimi demands.

Based on an annual catch limit of 3,763 metric tons, federal officials predict longline fishing for bigeye will be closed in the western and central Pacific by the last week of December.

“;Our estimates are looking that way, but it's hard to tell from week to week,”; said Michael Tosatto, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Islands deputy administrator.

Tosatto said the quota, set by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, with rules published Monday in the Federal Register, was established because scientists believe too many bigeye were dying to sustain its stock.

“;The fishing pressure is too much,”; he said.

The bigeye quota, based on a catch 10 percent less than the amount during 2004, remains in effect through 2011. The quota is the first international limit established for bigeye in the world, officials said.

Government and fishing industry officials say they won't know until near the end of the month if the quota will have any impact on demand and prices, because the catches are still rolling in and haven't reached the limit.

With about 120 to 140 commercial vessels, the Hawaii longline fishing industry brings in an estimated $50 million to $60 million in revenues annually, industry officials said.

Scott Barrows, general manager of the Hawaii Longline Association, said imposing a quota on U.S. vessels will cure nothing and that their members are among the most regulated in the world.

Barrows said if longline fishing is closed toward the end of the year, foreign countries will start air-shipping bigeye.

“;The fish wouldn't be as high grade,”; he said. “;We bring ours off the docks.”;

Brooks Takenaka, assistant manager of the United Fishing Agency, said with the slow economy he's worried about bigeye demand.

“;At this point, the way things are going, I'd be more concerned about the economy, whether people are going to be spending money,”; he said.