Paid not to fish

Photo Credit: Hololulu Weekly

By Christopher Pala
Honolulu Weekly, October 13, 2010

Some folks made a killing depleting the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Wait ‘til you see how much they’ll make not to fish there anymore.

The news came innocuously enough, in a press release earlier this year from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. As a result of former President George W. Bush’s designation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a marine national monument in June 2006, Congress appropriated funds to compensate the owners of seven bottomfish licenses and 15 lobster licenses because they would no longer be able to fish there.

The bottom-fishermen would share $2.2 million, the lobster fishermen $4.3 million. All licenses had been given out for free.n the bottomfish fishery, a study found fishermen were unsustainably depleting the stocks of slow-growing fishes like ‘opakapaka and onaga. Their catch had dwindled to 63,249 pounds last year from 250,000 pounds, the average in the first years of the fishery, according to the press release. Some environmentalists wondered why the fishermen should be rewarded for that? In addition, the Bush proclamation gave them five years to wind down their operations.

The bottom-fishermen had turned down an offer from the Pew Environment Group to buy their licenses in exchange for an immediate end to fishing in the area. Pew proposed to use its tax returns as a basis for compensation, a plan that one fisherman, Gary Dill, called “insulting.” The talks went nowhere.

The lobster fishery was much bigger and hugely profitable and was stopped after a bitter court battle in 2000. Catches had fallen from 2 million lobsters in 1983 to 38,000 in 1995, even after fishing was suspended in 1992 and 1993.

Even those figures don’t tell the whole story. In 1983, the fishermen reported catching an additional half a million lobsters, or 28 percent more, that were undersized or carrying eggs, and throwing them back in the sea, as required. A 1996 NOAA study found that virtually all died anyway. By then, the proportion of illegal lobsters had risen to 62 percent of the legal catch, mostly juveniles. Instead of forcing the fishermen to use methods that would ensure a higher survival rate of the illegal ones, the government changed the rule that year and allowed the fishermen to keep the small ones, which were categorized as “garnishes,” as well as the egg-bearing females.

The Players

After two temporary closures by NOAA, the Honolulu federal court closed the fishery again in 2000 because of still-disputed evidence that the collapse of the lobster population had triggered mass starvation among monk seal pups, and that in turn caused a 5 percent yearly decline in the monk seal population. The fishery was never reopened, presumably because the lobster stocks never recovered, and the monk seal pups in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are still starving.

“It’s precisely because fisheries mismanagement in Hawaii has been so abysmal that the marine national monument was created,” says Jay Nelson of Pew, who coordinated support for the monument. “The irony is that it’s only because of the definitive nature of the monument designation that the fishermen were able to argue for compensation.”

Still, why would taxpayers have to compensate a group of fishermen who made fabulous profits in the ’80s and ’90s by depleting one of the world’s last pristine stocks of spiny lobsters and, as a result of that depletion, hadn’t fished lobsters there in 10 years?

I wondered exactly who these lobstermen were and how much they got, so I asked

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