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    Tuesday, December 11, 2018-6:10:57P.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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Florida congressman’s bill threatens commercial fishing in NMI, Guam

HAGÅTÑA — The highly regulated commercial fishing industry in the CNMI, Guam, American Samoa and Hawaii is threatened by a U.S. congressional bill that would prohibit interstate commerce of blue marlin and sailfish landed in these Pacific jurisdictions, according to the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.

At the same time, H.R. 4528, if signed into law, would deprive American consumers of sustainably harvested domestic marlin products, the council said.

Introduced by U.S. Rep. Darren Soto’s, D-Fla., H.R. 4528 passed the House on June 26 and the Senate on July 30. It is now headed to the White House.

“It is upsetting, in this era of tackling illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and the $12 billion U.S. seafood trade deficit, that highly monitored U.S. Pacific Island fishing and seafood communities may suffer hardship should this legislation become law,” said Kitty M. Simonds, the council’s executive director.

Sailfish and blue marlin — both referred to as billfish — caught by U.S. vessels that are landed in Hawaii or other U.S. Pacific Islands are currently sold in the U.S. markets. More than 550,000 pounds of this marine products are annually marketed in the U.S. mainland.

The council said the billfish is worth approximately $830,000 in 2017 dockside value. “When the dockside value is expanded through wholesale and retail markets, the estimated annual value is approximately $2.5 million,” the council said.

According to the most recent available number, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1.09 metric tons of blue marlin and 0.04MT of sailfish landed in the CNMI in 2014. No data is available for Guam.  There are 200 registered vessels in the CNMI and 380 in Guam, according to NOAA.

In a June 5 letter to the fishery council, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said he did not believe Soto’s bill would advance the conservation of billfish significantly. Instead, he added, the interstate commerce an “would block a small amount of sustainably harvested domestic product from entering commerce on the U.S. mainland.”

The fishery council recalled a statement made in December 2017 by Chris Oliver, assistant administrator for fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who expressed “full confidence in these existing management processes to sustainably manage billfish populations.”

According to NOAA’s website, law enforcement agents and officers work with 27 coastal states and partner with other agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard to prevent illegal activities such as fishing out of season, fishing in restricted areas and exceeding catch limits. “Taken together, these steps make up the U.S. science-based fisheries management process, which sustainably manages fisheries to keep the marine environment healthy, fish populations thriving, and our seafood industry on the job,” NOAA said.

Congresswomen Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, Madeleine Z. Bordallo, D-Guam, and Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen, R-American Samoa, issued a joint statement, saying H.R. 4528 “will negatively impact the livelihoods of fishermen in Hawaii, Guam and the Pacific Insular Areas by closing off the only off-island market for U.S.-caught billfish.”

While acknowledging that several Atlantic billfish species are susceptible to overharvest, the territorial delegates said they support “needed-conservation efforts in the Atlantic, but do not believe that Pacific fisheries need to be targeted in order to achieve these goals.”

The council noted that the commercial harvest of Atlantic billfish has been prohibited in the United Sates since 1988 because several Atlantic billfish species, such as blue marlin, white marlin and East Atlantic sailfish, are overfished and/or subject to overfishing.

By contrast, the council added, “Pacific and Western Pacific billfish populations are not overfished nor subject to overfishing, with the exception of striped marlin, due to international fishing. A Billfish Certificate of Eligibility is required to accompany billfish to any dealer or processor who subsequently receives or possesses the billfish.”

The certificates, which document the vessel, homeport, port of offloading and date of offloading, ensure the fish is not from the Atlantic or foreign fisheries.