Updated: Jun 16
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Guam’s bottomfish industry, which is now under a federal rebuilding plan due to a lack of local regulations that resulted in overfished stock, posted a large increase in annual catch in 2021.
According to a report released Wednesday by the Western Pacific Regional Pacific Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee, Guam’s bottomfish harvest increased to 54,221 lbs., among the highest in three decades.
Available data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA showed that Guam’s bottomfish catch ranged from 11,711 lbs. to 31,760 lbs. between 2012 and 2020, and the harvest over the last three years averaged 27,306 lbs.
The federal agency said Guam fishery harvests 13 species of emperors, snappers, groupers and jacks. The territory's fishery involves 300 participants, according to NOAA.
On Feb. 10, 2020, the National Marine and Fishery Service reported that the Guam bottomfish stock complex was "overfished, but not subject to overfishing."
The fishery agency's findings have prompted NOAA to issue a final rule implementing a rebuilding plan that includes annual catch limits and accountability measures for the overfished bottomfish stock complex in Guam.
The final rule, published in the Federal Register, went into effect on March 21.
“This action is necessary to rebuild the overfished stock consistent with the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act),” NOAA said.
The federal agency said 73.6 percent of the bottomfish habitat is in territorial waters—generally from the shoreline to 3 nautical miles offshore— with the rest in federal waters around offshore banks to the northeast and southwest of Guam.
NOAA noted that Guam does not currently have regulations in place to implement a complementary annual catch limit and in-season accountability measure.
“Because the complex exists in both territorial and federal waters around Guam, we are obligated to manage the stock throughout its range and will count harvests from territorial and federal waters toward the annual catch limit,” the agency said.
According to NOAA's rebuilding plan, federal waters would be shut down through the rest of the year if NMFS projects that the fishery will hit the annual catch limit in any given year.
NOAA said the regulations seek to ensure that the catch in both federal and territorial waters is maintained at levels that allow the stock to rebuild.
“Although bottomfish have accounted for only 10-15 percent of Guam's boat-based fish harvest, bottomfish hold fundamental dietary and cultural importance for the people of Guam," NOAA said. "Federal waters around Guam remain important for the harvest of deepwater snappers at offshore banks to provide locally sourced bottomfish."
Rebuilding a stock complex is projected to take nine years. Until then, NOAA's rule would remain in place.
"This rebuilding plan was selected because it allows for the least disruption to the fishing community and minimizes negative socio-economic impacts while still rebuilding the stock complex within the 10-year period required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act," NOAA said.
Meanwhile, the fishery councils' Scientific and Statistical Committe also reported an increased fishing activity in the Northern Marianas, which posted an annual catch of 74,885 pounds in 2021.
The committee endorsed changes to the CNMI bottomfish management unit species or BMUS complex.
Giant ehu (Etelis boweni) and blue-lined gindai (Pristipomoides argyrogrammicus) were added to the CNMI Fishery Ecosystem Plan and other species were recommended to include in a territory fishery management plan.
“The Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center completed analyses of CNMI creel survey data to support revising the BMUS complex,” the committee said.
Federal management plans will include 10 deep-water species while the territory’s management plan will include five primarily shallow-water species.
In Hawaii, the Deep-7 bottomfish complex had a slight increase in trips and catches driven by onaga and ehu. Annual catch and revenue of uku also increased, according to the 2021 Annual Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation or SAFE reports.
In American Samoa, the committee noted a large decline in bottomfish catch down to 2,215 lbs.. “Unfortunately, this does reflect the reality of the situation,” said Domingo Ochavill, biologist at the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources Fisheries.
The committee noted that Covid-19-related issues affected bottomfish fishermen in the territory, where vendors are not buying due to increased prices, loss of crew to Apia and pelagic and imported bottomfish being cheaper in the market.
“Tunas dominated the catches and increased in all four areas relative to 2020,” the committee said in a press release. “These increases were driven by bigeye and yellowfin in Hawai‘i, South Pacific albacore and yellowfin in American Samoa, and skipjack and yellowfin in the Mariana archipelago.”