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Hawaiʻi bottomfish fishery plays minor role in whitetips’ survival, scientific group says

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The presence of oceanic whitetip sharks seems rare in Hawaiʻi bottomfish fisheries, according to a scientific committee. PC: Andy Mann courtesy of NOAA

While Hawaiʻi’s deepset longline fishery is operating under new regulations to reduce the unintended killing of oceanic whitetip sharks, Hawaiʻi’s bottomfish fishery appears to play a minor role in the sharks’ survival.

A scientific committee has agreed with a draft opinion that the oceanic whitetip shark is in “no jeopardy” in bottomfish fisheries in several regulated U.S. ocean regions, including Hawaiʻi.

Oceanic whitetip sharks are top predators and play a critical role in the ecosystem by maintaining the population of species below them in the food chain.

The Western Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee agreed with a federal draft study, saying the presence of oceanic white tip sharks is rare in bottomfish fisheries in Hawaiʻi, American Samoa, the Northern Marianas Islands and Guam.

The committee’s opinion goes to the council for its review.

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Fishing people target bottom fish at the 300-foot to 1,200-foot level in the ocean, whereas the oceanic white tip shark prefers a habitat in the upper 500 feet of the water column in open ocean, the committee said.

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The National Marine Fisheries Service’s draft for this fishery was prompted in 2018, following the listing of the oceanic white tip shark as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Bottomfish caught in the Hawaiʻi fishery include opakapaka, ehu, and onaga.

“We appreciate that the three-year review rendered a no jeopardy opinion and fully concur with this conclusion,” said science committee chair James Lynch. “No need exists for further restrictions on these fisheries.”

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There are an estimated 775,000 oceanic white tip sharks in the Western and Central Pacific.

The impacts to the oceanic white tip share are minimal, because there is limited overlap between bottomfish fisheries and the oceanic white tip shark which prefers open ocean areas, the committee said.

A new regulation, effective May 31, 2022, prohibits the use of wire leaders in the Hawaii deep-set longline fishery in favor of monofilament nylon leaders.

Just a year and a half prior, at the December 2020 Council meeting, the Hawaii Longline Association (HLA) announced that the fleet would voluntarily switch from wire to monofilament nylon leaders to help a shark’s ability to free itself from an accidental hooking by biting through the line. The new regulation is viewed as a big step in protecting threatened oceanic white tip sharks and could increase its survival rate by more than 30%, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA.

The council was established through Congress under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. It has the responsibility for preparing management plans for those fisheries within its jurisdiction.

NOAA, the agency in charge of the National Marine Fisheries Service, determines the regulations.

Oceanic whitetip sharks are top predators and play a critical role in the ecosystem by maintaining the population of species below them in the food chain.

Map by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Gary Kubota
Gary Kubota, an associate writer with MauiNow.com, has worked as a staff news writer with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and The Maui News. He lives on Maui. He’s also been an editor/business manager with the Lahaina News. He’s received national and regional journalism awards — a National Press Club Citation of Merit and Walter Cronkite Best In The West, among them.
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