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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 5, 2003

Ruling muddies the water for longliners

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Top: Andy Meacham of Waldport, Ore., strings one of the 2,200 hooks on drop lines the crew of the Sea Pearl can deploy on their 28-mile-long main line. Above: Murphy Quinn of Anchorage, Alaska, handles the Virginia Creeper's bow line in Honolulu Harbor, which is crowded with other longline boats.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Andrew Longnecker stood on the deck of his 70-foot fishing

boat, Virginia Creeper, and gazed at a striking, unobstructed view of Honolulu Harbor and the downtown skyline from his berth at Pier 17.

"It can be a hard life," Longnecker said wistfully about his chosen occupation. "You spend a lot of time at sea."

As a single man of 19, life on the open sea as a longline tuna fisherman offered a thrilling adventure. Now, at age 34, Longnecker is starting to wonder. He's not married, but has a steady girlfriend, a dance choreographer, who wishes he'd land a job on terra firma.

"She wants me to be a fireman," he said with a laugh.

The life of a longline fisher can be rough under ordinary circumstances — it's hard work, long hours and little sleep. But in Hawai'i in recent years, longliners have been under siege from environmentalists, regulators and a sometimes a hostile public.

Last month, a U.S. District Court judge in the District of Columbia threw out strict Hawai'i longline fishing regulations, saying they were based on a biological opinion in which procedural errors were made. But protections from prosecution for accidentally hooking endangered sea turtles were also removed.

At the very moment there seems to be some relief, there is uncertainty about whether the multimillion dollar industry, which favors some longline regulations, might be at risk of shutting down completely.

The state's lucrative longline fishing fleet at its height consisted of some 140 boats, plying the Hawaiian waters for swordfish and tuna. Longline fishing boats use miles of monofilament with hooks that drop from depths of 50 to 1,000 feet. The central complaint has been that while fish are snared, the hooks also snag turtles and even sometimes birds.

When Longnecker began fishing in Hawaiian waters around 1995, there were virtually no regulations on longline fishing.

Things changed dramatically in November 1999, when U.S. District Judge David Ezra issued an injunction that led to the shutting down of the swordfish longline industry here and placed the restrictions on tuna fishing to protect sea turtles.

Longnecker, who says he has never hooked a turtle in his life, says the restrictions did more than limit where and how he could fish. As a consequence of the ban on swordfishing, many of Hawai'i's swordfish fleet moved to California and elsewhere, but other swordfish boats switched to tuna, which increased the competition.

"There's not as much money in longline tuna fishing as there was when I started out," he said. "It's a lot more competitive. People are fishing a lot more gear. There are a lot more boats. And the price has gone down.

"If I had an 18-year-old son who wanted to be a fisherman, I'd do everything I could to convince him to go to college."

Andrew Longnecker, who runs the Virginia Creeper, says a ban on longline swordfishing not only pushed many boats to move to California but also led more skippers in Hawai'i to turn to longline tuna fishing.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

But Longnecker is having his second thoughts at a time when longline fishing is again wide open. Some of his fellow fishers don't know what to make of the recent ruling that invalidated all restrictions on longline fishing in Hawai'i.

It's no wonder. The Hawai'i Longline Association, which disagreed with many those restrictions, is now pleading with its members to continue to observe them.

John Penso, 40, operator of the 90-foot Sea Pearl, was initially elated when Scott Barrows, general manager of HLA, informed him Thursday that all restrictions banning swordfish fishing had been lifted.

But Barrows carefully outlined why his association wants the judge to leave the regulations in place, at least temporarily. "We have asked for a stay of the judge's ruling so that emergency regulations can be put in place," Barrows said.

He explained to Penso that the regulations banning swordfishing in Hawaiian waters also protected longline tuna fishers from "incidental bycatch" of sea turtles.

While the restrictions have been lifted, so have the protections, said Barrows. Swordfishers could very soon be in Pacific waters again. And longline swordfishing presents a much higher risk of hooking an endangered sea turtle because the lines run at a shallow depth.

"And if we hook even one turtle we could be in big trouble," Barrows told Penso. "The endangered species act is powerful. Potentially, it could close down the whole fishery."

Omar Cabrera, 29, watched Barrows and Penso from across the Sea Pearl's deck. It was unclear if Cabrera, who speaks little English, understood what the two were discussing. He seemed more interested in the game of cards he had momentarily walked away from.

Scott Barrows, general manager of the Hawaii Longline Association, discusses changes in the law that affect the fishing industry with John Penso, operator of the Sea Pearl longline fishing boat.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Cabrera, one of about 400 longline tuna fishers who man the 105 boats in the Hawai'i longline fleet, lives in the Philippines. He only knows he intends to continue fishing as long as he can. In the past decade he has worked on both American and Japanese longline boats.

While pay and conditions are comparable, Cabrera says Japanese boats sometimes stay at sea six months or more at a time. He prefers American boats, which make shorter trips, allowing him to return home more often to visit his mother, four sisters and the girlfriend he plans to marry.

According to Barrows, American boats, on average, are at sea 18 days at a time and bring back a load of about 12,000 pounds of high-quality tuna. Operating costs for such a trip run around $10,000, not counting 10 percent off the top that goes to the fish auction, and the 2-cents a pound that HLA members "contribute" to the association.

Boat owners get half of what's left. The captain and the crew split the remainder on a "share" or percentage basis, with the captain normally getting a double share.

Longline crew members pocket around $20,000 a year, give or take, said Barrows, which would qualify Cabrera as a wealthy man in his country. But if the catch is poor, which happens, fishers stand to lose money for all their effort.

"It's a hard business," Barrows said.

As the most experienced of the Sea Pearl's five-man crew, Cabrera has shown newcomers such as Andy "Huck" Meacham the ropes.

"Omar can untangle knots like you can't believe," said Meacham, 22. "He's awesome."

Like many boats, the Sea Pearl operates a spool of line 40 miles long that uses 2,200 hooks usually baited with sardines. While that may sound like a tremendous number of hooks, experienced fishermen contend that only ten tuna are caught for every 1,000 hooks.

Meacham, from Waldport, Ore., got into longline fishing earlier this year because he thought it would be similar to working charter fishing boats, which he had done. He soon found out otherwise.

"It's not as easy as I imagined it would be," he said. "It's totally different. It's hard to say how long I'll do it."

Now that he's had a taste of it himself, Kurtis Strzelewicz, 23, who signed up with Meacham, says he'll make of tuna fishing what he can, and then most likely move on to something else.

"It's just a different kind of work," he said. "I mean, it's adventure."

But for John Myking, 47, longline tuna fishing is more than a job or an adventure. It's a way of life. He has been at it for 18 years. At 15, Myking's youngest son is a budding longline fisher himself.

"He just loves it," said Myking, whose boat, Marie M, was docked across from the Sea Pearl at Pier 35. "But it would be nice if he got an education first. I want him to have options."

Like Barrows and every other boat owner and captain in the longliner's association, once a year Myking attends a Protected Species Workshop, such as the one presented at the regional National Marine Fisheries Service office on Friday.

Once the workshop is completed, participants are issued a plastic card. Barrows calls them "sea turtle resuscitation cards." He points out that Hawai'i longline fishers are the only fishers required to know how to save turtles.

Not that any of that appeases those who disapprove of longline fishing.

"I have to be careful about who I tell what I do for a living," said Longnecker. "There are a lot of people who are OK with it. But others hear all this hype about the last tuna and the last swordfish — and then it's, hey, we're the turtle killers."

Reach Will Hoover at 525-8038, or whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.