Reduction Of Large Vessel Prohibited Area In American Samoa Had 'No Adverse Impacts On Catch Rates'

National Marine Fisheries Service office notes benefits to locally-based US longliner fleet

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, May 15, 2017) – For one-year since the reduction of the large vessel prohibited area (LVPA) there have been “no adverse impacts on catch rates” for other American Samoan fishery participants, while providing benefits to the locally based US longliner fleet, according to a declaration by Michael D. Tosatto, a US National Marine Fisheries Service official.

Tosatto, who heads the NMFS Pacific Islands Regional Office, submitted the written declaration, which was part of the set of some 99-pages of documents filed with the Honolulu federal court, which has been asked by federal defendants to reconsider its decision in March this year, that declares invalid the LVPA 2016 Rule, that reduced the LVPA from 50 to 20 miles.

Among the federal defendants are the NMFS, Tosatto, and the US Commerce Department.

Reduction of the LVPA followed a request in 2014 from the US longline fleet based in American Samoa, as this fishery industry was faced with deteriorating economic conditions that were threatening the fishery's survival. “Area restrictions are of particular concern to American Samoa longline vessels because of the limited fishing grounds currently available to them,” said Tosatto in his declaration.

He points out that the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around American Samoa is bounded on all sides by the EEZs of other island nations - including Cook Islands, Tokelau, Samoa, Tonga, and Niue - that are generally off-limits to American Samoa fishermen.

In places, the shared EEZ boundaries with Pacific Island nations are less than 200 nautical miles (nm) from American Samoa's shores, further limiting the area available to American Samoan longliners for fishing, he said.

The 2016 LVPA Rule, which became effective in early February 2016, allows longline vessels greater than 50 feet that are permitted under the federal American Samoa Limited Entry-Permit program to fish in certain areas of the LVPA.

Tosatto said that data available to NMFS following one year of operations under the Rule “provided benefits to American Samoan longliners while producing no adverse impacts on catch rates for other American Samoan fishery participants”, including pelagic troll vessels (including alias), that primarily target yellowfin, skipjack, and wahoo.

For example, in 2016, 13.7% of total longline effort for 2016 was deployed in the LVPA exemption areas around Swains Island and Tutuila, according to Tosatto, who also provided additional data.

Within the LVPA exemption area around Swains Island, American Samoan longliners experienced an increase in catch rates and fishing efficiency for the target albacore stock, Tosatto explained. And although longline catch rates of albacore in the exemption area around Tutuila were less, catch rates of yellowfin tuna were higher than in all other areas.

Importantly, said Tosatto is that, in 2016 CPUE (or Catch per Unit of Effort) for American Samoa pelagic troll vessels improved even as longline catches of pelagic stocks in the exemption areas around Swains and Tutuila increased.

Additionally, catch rates per trolling hour of primary target stocks of yellowfin, skipjack, and wahoo all increased over 2015. Moreover, consistent with historical catch data, of the fifteen pelagic troll vessels (including alias) reporting catch in 2016, none targeted or landed any albacore, the longliners' target catch.

“These data are consistent with NMFS' earlier conclusions that ‘there is little evidence that longline vessels directly compete with non-longline troll vessels based on data from American Samoa and studies’,” he emphasized.

He also says that since the approval of the 2016 LVPA Rule, NMFS has not received any complaints or reports from pelagic trollers, bottomfish fishermen, alias, or recreational fishermen of gear conflict or catch competition with longliners.

“NMFS has no other data to suggest that the 2016 LVPA Rule has adversely affected any other fishing sector in American Samoa, including fishing from alias,” he said adding that the 2016 data further support the conclusion that the LVPA exemption area has provided needed opportunities for the federal longline fishery in American Samoa “to operate profitably by increasing catch rates and managing costs.”

However, the longline fishery's recovery to profitable operations remains uncertain, with a total estimated 2016 albacore harvest of only 1,558 metric tons, he said and emphasized that catch data after one year of operation under the 2016 LVPA Rule show that longline fishery did not cause localized depletion or catch competition to the detriment of other American Samoa fisheries, including fishing conducted from alias.

In its motion for reconsideration, federal defendants asked that instead of vacating the 2016 LVPA rule, remand it back to NMFS to address customary fishing in accordance with the Deeds of Cession, which the court ruled that NMFS failed to take into consideration in the 2016 LVPA rule.

In his declaration, Tosatto explained that under the federal Magnuson-Stevenson Act rulemaking process, NMFS will need at least two Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council meetings and one public comment period of up to 60 days to address customary fishing and NMFS' obligations under the Deeds. Additional public scoping may also be required.

“Accordingly, NMFS expects that it can complete a new rulemaking to correct its error within fifteen months of the court’s ruling on defendant’s motion for reconsideration,” Tosatto said. 

The Samoa News
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