Regional Report: Hawaii and California Commercial Fisheries

Pier 38 Honolulu
Vessels used in Hawaii’s longline and small-boat fisheries at Pier 38 in Honolulu. Photo: Bryan Ishida/Hawaii State Division of Aquatic Resources.

Recent data shows commercial fisheries in Hawaii and California are healthy, while officials support projects focused on conservation, sustainability and access to more abundant stocks.

The Golden and Aloha states, though also facing challenges related to COVID-19, were able to remain stable. NOAA Fisheries did report declines in the U.S. fishing and seafood industry as a result of the pandemic, with a return to normal unlikely to be imminent.


Economic conditions were challenging as demand dropped during the first year of the pandemic. But it has since rebounded as travel and the broader economy begin to stablilize, said Brett Schumacher of the Sustainable Fisheries Division for NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Islands Region Office (PIRO) in an email.

In Hawaii, COVID-19 presented challenges, but did not cause any fishery closures. There were some logistical and health/safety hurdles with the longline fisheries observer program, which provides monitoring and oversight and collects data to assess target stocks and the effects of bycatch.

“The global pandemic raised unprecedented challenges for that program, but we are proud of the steps we took to make sure that our sustainable fisheries could continue to operate,” Schumacher said. “Our observer program and the boat captains were able to adapt to these challenges so that fishing operations could continue to provide sustainable domestic sources of seafood while keeping both fishery participants and observers safe.” 

With these safety protocols in place, and with a 50% increase in shallow-set fishing effort from the previous year, PIRO was able to maintain the required 100% coverage in the shallow-set longline fishery.

Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Hawaii’s tourism-based economy continue to ease in comparison to the near complete shutdown in 2020, added Dan Dennison, spokesman for the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). However, a complete return to normal is still likely distant, he added.

Healthy Stocks

Overall, commercial fisheries in Hawaii are relatively healthy, officials agreed.

“Notably, the three most important pelagic stocks: Bigeye tuna, yellowfin tuna, and swordfish are healthy (i.e. not overfished or experiencing overfishing),” Schumacher pointed out. “The same is true for our two most important inshore stocks: The ‘Deep 7’ bottomfish complex and uku, or gray snapper.”

Hawaii-based commercial fisheries did not exceed any established annual catch limits or reach-take limits for protected species in 2021, so they were able to operate throughout the year, he added.

Fisheries currently managed under annual catch limits are not posing threats of surpassing their catch limits, Dennison confirmed.

But many of the non-longline fisheries have seen steady declines in landings over the past 10 years, he noted. Some of these trends are thought to be influenced in large part by a decline in the number of Commercial Marine License holders statewide, which has been ongoing since 2012. 

NOAA Fisheries
A notable rule requirement change proposed by NOAA Fisheries relates to conservation measures for oceanic whitetip sharks. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Notable Changes and Coming Trends

In comparison to 2021, the state does not anticipate any major changes to overall landings in 2022, Dennison said.

“Catch from Hawaii’s pelagic longline fishery, which makes up the overwhelming majority of the state’s commercial fishery in terms of both landings and ex-vessel value, is maintained by steady demand both in-state and abroad,” he said.

The declining fisher participation trend seen in many of the non-longline fisheries suggests that there will likely not be a marked jump in their landings in the coming year. 

Hawaii’s DLNR has received personal observations from the deep-7 bottomfish fishery that some fishers are having a much easier time locating and catching opakapaka (Pristipomoides filamentosus), which typically make up approximately 50% of the catch of this seven-species bottomfish complex, Dennison reported. In recent years, fishers (especially those fishing on Penguin Bank) have noted fewer opakapaka on the normal grounds.

“If the current observation holds true, we may see an increase in the landings of this commercially and culturally important fishery in 2022,” Dennison said.

Projects in the Works

A notable rule requirement change proposed by NOAA Fisheries that is under development relates to conservation measures for oceanic whitetip sharks.

Under the proposal, wire leaders would be prohibited within one meter of any hook deployed in the Hawaii deep-set longline fishery. It would also require the removal of fishing gear from any oceanic whitetip shark caught in all of the region’s domestic longline fisheries.

The proposed action is intended to increase post-hooking survival of these sharks, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and overfished under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

“Wire leaders make it difficult to remove the terminal portion of the branch line from sharks or other protected species that cannot be brought onboard,” Schumacher explained. “Switching to monofilament nylon leaders would allow crew to remove gear closer to the hook and may facilitate a shark’s ability to break free by biting through the line.”

Tagging studies show that shorter trailing gear gives sharks a better chance of survival, he added.

The idea to change from wire to monofilament leaders was initiated by the Hawaii Longline Association, which was looking for ways to reduce effects on this bycatch species while avoiding impacts on fishing operations, Schumacher explained.

Some, if not most, vessels in the Hawaii deep-set longline fishery are anticipated to voluntarily make the transition in advance of the regulatory requirement.

NOAA Fisheries and the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council reviewed available information on how this measure could reduce impacts on oceanic whitetip sharks, maintain (or potentially improve) catch rates of target species, and also make sure safety of the crew is not compromised.

“The contributions from fishing industry, scientists and managers led to the rule that would accomplish these three important objectives,” Schumacher said.

According to the supplementary information included with the proposed rule document, the National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that these requirements would reduce mortality of oceanic whitetip sharks hooked in the Hawaii deep-set fishery by approximately 30% due to a combination of higher post-hooking survival via bite-offs and reductions in trailing gear remaining on released animals.

Another notable project is a field study that tests tori lines, which scare birds away when fishing lines. The intent is to discourage interactions with seabirds and longline fisheries, and also increase operational flexibility.

The cooperative research project—partners include the fisheries management council and NOAA Fisheries—showed that tori lines are more effective in preventing interactions with black-footed and Laysan albatrosses than the blue-dyed bait that is currently required. Reports from participants also indicate they prefer the tori lines to working with the dyed bait, Schumacher explained. 

“Discharge of offal (fish parts) and spent bait is also required under existing rules, but available information suggest that, rather than distracting seabirds, this practice may increase interactions over time by attracting more seabirds to the fishing vessels,” he noted.

Based on this information, NOAA Fisheries is proposing to amend seabird mitigation rules for the Hawaii deep-set longline fishery to remove the requirements for blue-dyed bait and strategic offal discharge, replacing them with a tori-line requirement and best management training for offal management. 

Commercial squid vessels
Commercial squid vessels out on the water off the coast of California. Photo: Carrie Wilson.

Sustainability and Efficiency

PIRO Regional Administrator Michael Tosatto mentioned a strategic goal in NOAA’s Pacific Islands 2020-2023 plan was to amplify the economic value of commercial (and recreational) fisheries while ensuring their sustainability.

A core component of NOAA Fisheries’ mission is to provide for sustainable fishing opportunities, Schumacher said.

NOAA officials have also been working with the fishing industry to replace outdated paper logbooks with tablet computers for catch reporting, Schumacher noted. These e-logbooks, along with training and transmission, are provided at no cost to fishermen.

“This program gives us a win-win-win,” Schumacher said. “It saves valuable time for fishermen, NOAA Fisheries gets more accurate data more quickly, and everyone gets a better-managed fishery. These types of innovations enable the sustainable operation of fisheries so they can continue to benefit our country for years to come.”

Another area where NOAA Fisheries is working to advance the “blue economy” is through managing sustainable aquaculture, Schumacher said.

“Offshore aquaculture could supplement wild-caught fish, increase food security, reduce reliance on seafood imports and provide economic opportunity and job creation,” he said. 

Following several years of analysis and stakeholder engagement, NOAA Fisheries published a draft programmatic environmental impact statement in May 2021. This document includes qualitative analysis of the environmental impacts of a range of potential offshore aquaculture management programs and also seeks further public input on the aquaculture initiative, Schumacher explained.

Next steps will be to finalize the statement, potentially revise fisheries ecosystem plans in the region, and develop rules associated with a potential management program. All stages would include the opportunity for additional public input.


Overall, the commercial fisheries in California are healthy, with variations depending upon species, Marine Region Pelagic Fisheries and Ecosystem Program Manager John Ugoretz, of the  California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), confirmed in a January email.

Looking to the California current, there is some encouraging recent data, NOAA West Coast Regional Office spokesman Michael Milstein said in a December email. After several years of poor ocean conditions, the outlook is positive, he added.

According to NOAA’s year-end Ocean Indicators report, an early onset of upwelling and cold salty, low-oxygen water created notably productive winter “pre-conditioning” circumstances. This resulted in the highest annual biomass of cold-water northern copepods ever observed within a 24-year time frame, and lower than average biomass of warm-water southern copepods.

Commercial Dungeness crab fishermen
Commercial Dungeness crab fishermen working off the coast of California. Photo: Christy Juhasz.

Notable Changes and Coming Trends

At their November meeting, the Pacific Fishery Management Council took in-season action to reduce fishing mortality of the specified rockfish off California.

Effective Jan. 1, commercial trip limits for nearshore stocks off California were reduced, allowing a cumulative limit of not more than 75 pounds per two-month period for copper and for quillback rockfish.

“The reductions were needed in response to new stock status information,” Ugoretz explained.

According to the NOAA rule, this action is intended to allow commercial and recreational fishery participants to access more abundant groundfish stocks while protecting rebuilding stocks. The council also made recommendations for vermilion rockfish, primarily taken in the recreational fishery.

Combined recommended management measures for quillback rockfish recreational and commercial fisheries statewide are predicted to result in an approximate 12% reduction in estimated total fishing mortality. The combined measures for copper rockfish are estimated to result in a 25% reduction of total fishing mortality.

CDFW also plans to add both quillback and copper rockfish to the list of species with additional tracking effort, including frequent in-season projections, to make up for reporting lags and produce estimates of catch to the current date.

Trends for the 2022 market squid fishery are already looking positive in California.

“Market squid is having what looks like a relatively high catch/value year compared to recent years,” Ugoretz said.

Market squid have dramatically increased off the West Coast over the last two decades, especially from San Francisco, extending to Washington. Recent research notes the booming market squid fishery, in conjunction with warmer ocean waters, according to a study shared in January in the Marine and Coastal Fisheries journal.

West Coast squid densities have increased overall in the last decade, including four-fold in California, according to the research article. However, numbers have risen by much greater margins in the Pacific Northwest and have opened up new commercial fishing opportunities.

“Oregon squid landings still pale in comparison to those in California, yet the recent trend raises questions about how expected increases in ocean temperatures combined with (marine heatwaves) may affect the abundance and distribution of market squid and their proximity to fishing areas and ports,” the research article reads.

There are also positive trends for another big California fishery, Dungeness crabs.

“Dungeness crab landings are expected to be higher compared to last year, which was a low production year,” Ugoretz said.

Statewide landings to date are approximately 9.1 million pounds, compared to last year’s season total of 3.7 million pounds, he reported.

In 2021, Dungeness crab fishery opener was delayed in the Central Management Zone due to whale entanglements. The presence of humpback whales started to decline by mid-December, lowering the risk of entanglements. The zone opened in its entirety by Dec. 29.

It was a “tremendous undertaking” for officials as they conducted numerous aerial and vessel-based studies over several weeks to inform CDFW’s Risk Assessment Mitigation Program for the Dungeness crab fishery.

In a Dec. 15 press release, CDFW Director Charlton Bonham thanked everyone who participated in the large collaborative effort that worked to “use the best available science to manage an important California fishery.”

Ugoretz also noted that pink shrimp is expected to be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council in 2022. 

“This will be the first state managed fishery in California to achieve this certification,” he said.

Projects in the Works

Red Sea Urchin Disaster Funds were distributed in early 2022. Research proposals for mitigation funds are under review and awards are expected to be distributed in the second quarter of 2022, Ugoretz said.

The California Drift Gill Net Transition program, which compensates fishermen to voluntarily relinquish their nets and permits, is wrapping up this year, Ugoretz said. To date, 30 permit holders have participated and another 13 are eligible.

The program, which incentivizes drift gill-net permittees with a one-time payment to transition out of the drift gill net shark and swordfish fishery, reduces bycatch and provides for a sustainable swordfish fishery.