U.S. Fisheries Service Scrambles To Limit Fishing Days In Pacific EEZ

NMFS not yet ready to issue emergency rule requested by American Samoa canneries

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, May 26, 2016) – The US National Marine Fisheries Service, which has set for the year 2016 a limit of 1,828 fishing days — the same limit set in 2015 — for US purse seine vessels to fish in the U.S. exclusive economic zone (U.S. EEZ) and on the high seas area known in federal regulations as Effort Limit Area for Purse Seine, or ELAPS, according to an interim rule which became effective yesterday, although NMFS is accepting public comments up to June 24.

The interim rule also reveals that NMFS has yet to complete its economic impact review of the fishing restrictions on the ELAPS in the US territories — especially American Samoa, home to two US canneries including Tri Marine International, whose petition last year for an exemption for US purse seiners that offload 50% of their catch in the territory, was denied by NMFS.

Last year’s fishing days limit was reached by July 15th and the ELAPS then closed, according to NMFS records.

Samoa News points out that the ELAPS closure prompted opposition from government, business and cannery officials. The closure also resulted in a drop in the number of US purse seiners calling into the Port of Pago Pago.

NEW INTERIM RULE

According to NMFS, the interim rule is necessary for the United States to implement provisions of a conservation and management measure adopted by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC or Commission) for the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO).

While the United States is a member of the Commission, its territories are considered Participating Territories.

NMFS says the interim rule is being issued without prior notice or prior public comment because of the unexpectedly high level of U.S. purse seine fishing effort in the ELAPS in 2016. And the high level in 2016 was unexpected because the fleet did not receive licenses, which are required for fishing in the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, which includes most of the ELAPS, until Mar. 4 this year.  (The current interim Treaty is only valid for 2016.)

According to NMFS, it didn’t anticipate that U.S. purse seine vessels would concentrate fishing efforts during the first two months of 2016 in small pocket areas of the ELAPS that are not part of the Treaty Licensing Area and do not require Treaty licenses to fish.

To satisfy the international obligations of the United States as a Contracting Party to the Convention, NMFS says it must establish the applicable limits for 2016 before they are exceeded, which, based on preliminary data available to date, NMFS expects could occur as early as next month.

NMFS contends that it would not be able to establish the applicable limits for 2016 if it issued and considered public comments on a proposed rule prior to issuing a final rule. Nonetheless, NMFS said it will consider public comments on this interim rule and issue a final rule, responding to comments as appropriate.

According to NMFS these fishing effort restrictions are intended to reduce or otherwise control fishing pressure on bigeye tuna, yellowfin tuna, and skipjack tuna in the WCPO in order to maintain or restore those stocks at levels capable of producing maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis.

Failure to immediately implement these provisions could result in excessive fishing pressure on these stocks, in violation of international and domestic legal obligations.

TRI MARINE PETITION

Prior to NMFS publishing on May 21, 2015 the interim rule for 2015 fishing days limitation in 2015, Tri Marine petitioned the federal agency for an emergency rule to implement the 2015 ELAPS limits for fishing days on the high seas, and second, that NOAA issue a rule exempting from that high seas limit any U.S.-flagged purse seine vessel that delivers at least 50% of their catch to the canneries in American Samoa.

Last October, NMFS announced denial of the petition, but also issued an advance notice of proposed rule-making (ANPR) in which NMFS says it intends to examine the potential impact of the domestic implementation of Commission decisions for purse seine fisheries on the economies of the U.S. Participating Territories, and examine the connectivity between the activities of U.S.-flagged purse seine fishing vessels and the economies of the territories.

NMFS further stated that it will consider proposing regulations that mitigate adverse economic impacts of purse seine fishing restrictions on the U.S. Participating Territories, and that it is considering proposing regulations that recognize that in the context of implementing Commission decisions, fisheries associated with the U.S. Participating Territories are distinct from the purse seine fishery of the United States.

In that case, the purse seine fisheries associated with the U.S. Participating Territories might be subject to special provisions of the Convention and of Commission decisions, and NMFS would implement those provisions and decisions accordingly.

“NMFS' impact analysis is not completed and NMFS is not prepared to propose regulations of the types described in the ANPR,” according to the interim rule document.

However, establishment through this interim rule of the limit of 1,828 fishing days for 2016 will not preclude NMFS from proposing at a later date regulations of the types described in the ANPR for 2016 or subsequent years, it says.

Late last year and early this year, American Samoa has urged NMFS to expedite the impact review as the territory’s fishing and cannery industries are faced with many challenges, including competition from foreign countries.

The interim rule and related documents are online at: regulations.gov

The Samoa News
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