Half of Hawaii’s Bottomfishing Restricted Areas Opening Up

A long-simmering dispute over the state’s Bottomfishing
Restricted Areas (BRFA’s) between Hawaii’s fishing community and the state’s
Department of Natural Resources and fisheries scientists has resulted in a move
by the state to open six BRFAs and keep six BRFAs closed.

The state will also increase the recreational daily bag limit
for the seven deepwater bottomfish species from a total of five to a total of
10. A voluntary non-commercial reporting option may be included. Monitoring of
the BRFAs would continue based on available funding.
The decision by the state to open up the six BRFA’s was
announced at the March 21 meeting of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery
Management Council (WPRFM) in Guam. The announcement of the decision by Hawaii
Department of Land and Natural Resources chairman William Aila to open the six
BRFA’s was made by Alton Miyasaka of the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources.
Miyasaka explained that in the BRFAs to remain closed,
research has been conducted in four of them for seven years while research may
yet be initiated in the other two areas.
Hawaii’s BRFAs are located in both state and federal waters
and were created in the 1990s when local depletion of some bottomfish species
known as the Deep 7 in the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) was a concern.
Currently, the bottomfish stocks are considered healthy, with no overfishing
occurring and no stocks overfished. The Deep 7 bottomfish species include six
snappers (Lutjanidae) in the subfamily Etelinae and one grouper (Serranidae), the
Hawaiian grouper Hyporthodus quernus.
The WPRFM’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC)
reviewed the recommendations of the MHI Bottomfish Working Group. It was
suggested that the Council could open the portions of the BRFAs located within
federal waters.
Council Executive Director Kitty Simonds noted that this
option was under review and that a number of the National Standards of the
Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) justify the
elimination of MHI BRFAs in federal waters.
The SSC had previously recommended that all BRFAs be
eliminated in federal waters and the State be encouraged to remove all BRFAs in
State waters as well. The SSC said the utility of the BRFAs to manage the
bottomfish fishery has been superseded by mandatory annual catch limits (ACLs)
that have been established based on the best scientific information available.
Subsequent to establishment of the BRFAs in the 1990s, both state and federal
fishery managers implemented total allowable catch for bottomfish in 2007 and
annual catch limits since 2011. The Council supported its SSC recommendation
continuing to call for the removal of the BRFAs within federal waters and
encourage that the State removes the BRFAs within state waters.
That recommendation was opposed by SSC member Miyasaka at the
time it was made. “The state’s position is that the closed areas provide an
extra level of management,” he said. “The federal agencies feel it’s not
necessary to have state regulation. They like some of the things we do, but not
Fishing for bottomfish in federal waters around Hawaii (3-200
nm offshore) is managed under the Fishery Ecosystem Plan for the Hawaiian
To limit fishing mortality and conserve bottomfish stocks at
levels that support healthy fisheries, Federal regulations implementing the
plan include a quota (annual catch limit) for Deep 7 bottomfish.
The quota is specified each fishing year using the best
available scientific information collected by the State of Hawaii and NOAA
Fisheries Service, including commercial and non-commercial fishing data and
other information, and considers the associated risk of overfishing.
When the quota is reached, all fishing (commercial and
non-commercial) for Deep 7 species is prohibited in Federal waters around the
MHI for the remainder of the fishing year. There is no prohibition on fishing
for other bottomfish species throughout the year. When the quota is reached,
the State of Hawaii will also close waters from the shoreline out to three
nautical miles (State waters).
The SSC noted that the Makapu`u and Penguin Bank BRFAs, which
the State proposes to keep closed, are the most important fishing areas for
fishermen from three islands. Their closures have created the greatest economic
hardship of all the existing BRFAs for fishermen, as well social interaction
issues through the crowding of effort into the remaining open areas.
A fisherman provided public comment noting that the Makapu`u
BRFA creates economic burdens and safety concerns because fishermen have to
travel further to alternate fishing grounds. He said keeping the BRFA closed
due to the existence of a precious coral bed in the area is not justified
because fishermen do not fish in the area of the Makapu`u BRFA that includes
the bed.
Ed Ebisui, Council vice chair from Hawaii, thanked the State
for opening six BRFAs, but said it didn’t go far enough. “We have the ability
to be self-sufficient and we fish responsibly … but it doesn’t get us anywhere but
more regulations. … I go to Costco and see imports from countries that are
unregulated,” he said. “It is ironic that our imports encourage international
illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing… The BRFAs have outlived
their usefulness,” he added.
This will not be the first time the number of Hawaii’s BRFA’s
has been cut back. There were originally 19 BRFA’s established in 1998, that
number was cut to 12 in 2002. The SSC suggested that either a stock assessment
be made in the BRFAs before they are opened or catch and effort reporting
requirements be made for all vessels that fish in these areas after they are
The state has been sponsoring habitat and stock assessment
research since the BRFA’s were first established. The cutbacks in the number of
BRFA’s were partially the results of that research.
One of the principal methods the state’s researchers have
used to determine the effectiveness of the BRFA’s is the use of a baited stereo
botcam that is lowered to a depth where it makes video and still recordings of
any fish and the surrounding habitat. The botcam has provided the researchers
data about the types of fish that can be found in the differing habitats at
“We looked at seven years of data before we made the decision
to cut back,” said Miyasaka. “We had thoroughly surveyed four areas out of
twelve, we had varying degrees of data on those four and we want to do more
The main criticism of using the botcam data to justify
maintaining the closed BRFA’s to fishing has been Charles Daxboeck, SSC chair.
There is no baseline for the research, he said, noting that should have been
done when the BRFAs were established. At this point, to establish a baseline,
Daxboeck said, the areas should be opened and fished with both commercial and
non-commercial fishermen reporting their catches.
The SSC recommended in their June 2013 meeting that a
simulation study be conducted to examine whether or not the exclusion of the
BRFAS from the bottomfish stock assessment affects the results. When the SSC
recommended BRFAs there was no other management process to address overfishing
of bottomfish. Since then, the fishery has been stringently managed through
Annual Catch Limits.

The SSC recommends that Council staff develop a process for
future treatment of the BRFAs including eliminating some or all of the BRFAs,
and developing a monitoring program. This should be developed through the
Council process, including consultation with experienced deep bottom fishermen
of Hawaii.