Official says ban won't hurt 'ahi stock
By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Staff Writer
A three-day ban on bigeye tuna fishing will not affect the availability of sashimi for New Year's celebrations, officials said.
NOAA Fisheries Service yesterday issued a notice prohibiting Hawai'i-based longline fishing vessels from catching bigeye tuna in the western and central Pacific from Dec. 29 to 31 to avoid exceeding the 2009 catch limit.
Bigeye tuna, one of several species of tuna known locally as 'ahi, is preferred by sashimi lovers for its higher fat content.
Michael Tosatto, deputy regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Service, said the brief ban on bigeye fishing is late enough in the year so as not to impact the critical year-end supply of 'ahi.
"We do not expect this short closure to have an effect on this year's holiday availability of bigeye tuna. ... The fish that would be available on Dec. 29, Dec. 30 and Dec. 31 are already, by that point, on land, so to speak. This just means that for those three days, nothing can be taken out of the ocean, but it can still be sold," Tosatto said.
Fishing vessels use deep-set longline fishing gear to catch bigeye tuna, which are found in deeper, cooler waters. Fishers stay out to sea for two to three weeks at a time before returning with their catch.
Just how much of the prized fish will be available at local markets for New Year's and how much it will cost will remain unclear until fishing vessels now at sea return to port, said Brooks Takenaka, assistant general manager of United Fishing Agency, which operates the Honolulu Fish Auction at Pier 38.
"Every year it's the same concern: whether we'll have enough fish or not," he said.
Fish markets last year at this time were selling premium-grade 'ahi for $14.95 to $29.95 per pound. Takenaka said it's hard to predict where the prices will land this year.
"Like anything else, prices get a little dearer this time of year and it depends on supply and demand," he said.
The supply could be impacted by recent storms and other factors that may have curtailed fishing activities, and demand for 'ahi is also a question mark.
"In this economy, we don't know if people are going to be spending any money," Takenaka said.
NOAA Fisheries Service said other fish may still be caught by longliners during the bigeye closure, including yellowfin tuna, ono, kajiki, opah, mahimahi, nairagi and monchong, and Hawai'i longliners may still fish for bigeye tuna in the eastern Pacific.
Takenaka said several vessels recently returned from eastern fishing grounds with nice bigeye catches.
Concerns about overfishing led to international agreements and federal regulations limiting the annual U.S. longline bigeye catch to 3,763 metric tons, effective this year. NOAA Fisheries Service has been monitoring bigeye tuna catches and determined that the 2009 catch limit will be reached by Dec. 29, Tosatto said.
Officials thought fishers would hit the quota much sooner. Tosatto said the 2009 season may have lasted longer than expected because of lower catch levels for a couple months early in the year and apparent efforts by the fishing industry to ration its bigeye catch to be in position to take advantage of the profitable holiday period when raw 'ahi dishes are a traditional favorite at island parties.
Takenaka said the fish auction sees its best sales during the last two weeks of the year, when the bidding can get intense.
"There's a little more stress out there; you can feel the emotion. It gets to be quite exciting," he said.
Anyone worried about getting an ample supply of 'ahi from their neighborhood fish market can take their chances and bid with the pros at the auction, Takenaka said.
"Until it gets too crazy, the public is welcome to come in and buy fish on their own," he said.
During the holiday period, the fish auction starts at 3 a.m. daily, but will be closed Christmas Day and New Year's Day.
The same catch quota of 3,763 metric tons will be used for the 2010 fishing year, which opens Jan. 1.