Anglers report catching larger tuna, marlin
By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer
Hawai'i's mosquito fleet is catching significantly larger yellowfin tuna and marlin than it has in decades and some anglers attribute that to court-ordered curtailing of longline fishing around Hawai'i.
"A lot more fish (tuna) over 200 pounds seem to have been showing up since the longline curtailment," said Rick Gaffney, an advocate for recreational angling and co-chair of the West Hawai'i Fisheries Council. There are more and bigger marlin, too, he said.
Others say the good fishing may simply be a cyclical event, having little or nothing to do with longlining or at least little to do with Hawai'i's offshore longlining fleet.
"The environment is changing all the time. Blue marlin catches go up and down on a five- to 15-year cycle and yellowfin tuna go up and down on a three- to seven-year cycle," said Chris Boggs, a fishery biologist with NOAA Fisheries in Honolulu.
But Boggs concedes that the decade-old closing of waters within 50 miles of shore to longliners could have an affect on yellowfin tuna catches. Tuna are generally believed to be far-traveling, but some scientists believe some yellowfin may remain around Hawai'i on a long-term basis, and these animals would benefit from a reducing in longline fishing pressure in the immediate region of the Islands.
Boggs said federal court bans on longlining for swordfish are unlikely to have had an impact, since American fishing boats the only ones affected by the bans represent less than 5 percent of the longline fishing pressure around Hawai'i.
"Longline effort (overall, including foreign fleets) has not declined," and although blue marlin are not the target of longliners, their hooks do catch a lot of marlin, he said.
A federal judge in 2000 banned the Hawai'i longline fleet from setting hooks for swordfish. It was done to protect endangered and threatened turtles, which are sometimes hooked on the fishing gear. However, the judge permitted the fleet to continue setting gear for tuna. Tuna gear is set much deeper than swordfish hooks, and catches fewer turtles.
Whatever the reason for the improved catches, small boat anglers are celebrating.
Gaffney said there are 12,000 small power boats in Hawai'i, most of which fish at least occasionally. This mosquito fleet, as it has been called, is an industry worth tens of millions of dollars to the Hawaiian economy, and he believes it benefits from controls on longlining.
"The curtailment of longlining in Hawai'i is not just good for turtles, marine mammals and sea birds, it is also good for the vast majority of the fishermen of Hawai'i," Gaffney said.
Local anglers this year have seen the largest yellowfin tuna and blue marlin in years, said Jim Rizzuto, author and fishing columnist.
He said a 243-pound ahi caught May 22 by Stephen Cornacchia and Steve Arrington aboard the Diana Gail was the biggest ahi reported in a decade.
He said trollers have caught three blue marlin this year weighing more than 1,000 pounds. One of them was also the biggest of its species in a decade, a 1,258 1/2-pound fish caught July 5 by visiting fisherman Miguel Koenig, Capt. Bomboy Llanes and crew Scott Kadaoka on the boat On The Fly.
The state does not collect detailed catch data from recreational and subsistence fishing, so it is difficult to prove the overall catch is larger, but Gaffney said his discussions with fishers across the state indicate the increase is real.
"Since longlining was curtailed by the court order, Hawai'i's small boat recreational, subsistence and charter fishermen have seen an improvement in their catches both in terms of quality and quantity," meaning they're catching more fish and bigger fish, he said.
"If it did have an impact ... then the court-order closure benefited more than seabirds, turtles and marine mammals it benefited real people in Hawai'i who have at least an equal right to those fish."
Jim Cook, who owns and sells supplies to longline ships, said he's heard about the good catches, but isn't sure longliners or the lack of longliners have anything to do with it.
"It's something that I've heard around. I know there has been very good marlin fishing in the last couple of years, but the studies I know of indicate that there is not catch competition between the two fisheries," Cook said.
Boggs said studies suggest that when fishing is good, both the longline industry and local anglers do well. And when it's bad, it's bad for both. But he concedes that an effect from the restrictions is possible, but not proven.
"There are people who say the data just aren't good enough to show, one way or the other," he said.
Paul Dalzell, senior scientist with the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, agreed that it's possible local fishing is improving because of regulations on the longline fleet, but he said "it's very hard to prove that."
Rizzuto said there is one more piece of anecdotal information:
"We are seeing fewer marlin with longline hooks. A decade ago, they were coming in every week. This year, I have heard about very few," he said.
Reach Jan TenBruggencate at email@example.com or (808) 245-3074.