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International Fisheries; Pacific Tuna Fisheries; Restrictions for 2007 Purse Seine and Longline Fisheries in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean

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Information about this document as published in the Federal Register.

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AGENCY:

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Department of Commerce.

ACTION:

Final rule.

SUMMARY:

NMFS publishes this final rule to implement the 2007 management measures to reduce overfishing of the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP) tuna stocks in 2007, consistent with recommendations by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) that have been approved by the Department of State (DOS) under the Tuna Conventions Act. The U.S. purse seine fishery for yellowfin, bigeye, and skipjack tunas in the ETP will be closed for a 6-week period beginning August 1, 2007, through September 11, 2007. The longline fishery for bigeye tuna will close when a 500 metric ton (mt) limit has been reached. These actions are taken to limit fishing mortality caused by purse seine fishing and longline fishing in the ETP and contribute to long-term conservation of the tuna stocks at levels that support healthy fisheries.

DATES:

The 2007 purse seine fishery closure for yellowfin, bigeye, and skipjack tunas is effective on 12:00 a.m. Pacific Time, August 1, 2007, through 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time, September 11, 2007. For 2007, NMFS will close the bigeye longline fishery through appropriate procedures to ensure that the bigeye longline tuna catch does not exceed 500 mt.

ADDRESSES:

Copies of the regulatory impact review/final regulatory flexibility analysis (FRFA) may be obtained from the Southwest Regional Administrator, Southwest Region, NMFS, 501 West Ocean Boulevard, Suite 4200, Long Beach, CA 90802-4213.

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FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:

J. Allison Routt, Sustainable Fisheries Division, Southwest Region, NMFS, (562) 980-4030.

This Federal Register document is also accessible via the Internet at the Office of the Federal Register's website at http://www.gpoaccess.gov/​

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SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

The United States is a member of the IATTC, which was established by international agreement through the Convention for the Establishment of an Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (Convention), which was signed in 1949. The IATTC was established to ensure the effective international conservation and management of highly migratory species of fish in the ETP. For the purposes of these closures, the ETP is defined to include the waters bounded by the coast of the Americas, the 40° N. and 40° S. parallels, and the 150° W. meridian. The IATTC has maintained a scientific research and Start Printed Page 30712fishery monitoring program for many years and annually assesses the status of stocks of tuna and the fisheries to determine appropriate harvest limits or other measures to prevent overexploitation of the stocks and promote viable fisheries.

In June 2006, the IATTC adopted a Resolution for a Program on the Conservation of Tuna in the Eastern Pacific Ocean for 2007. The June 2006 resolution is a 1-year program on the conservation of tuna in the ETP for 2007. This resolution offers a choice for closing the purse seine fishery: either a 6-week closure beginning August 1, 2007, or a 6-week closure beginning November 20, 2007. The resolution of June 2006 incorporated flexibility for nations to administer the purse seine closure in accordance with national legislation and national sovereignty. The selected measure should reduce overfishing in a manner that is fair, equitable, and readily enforceable.

A proposed rule to carry out the IATTC-recommended and DOS-approved closures for the ETP purse seine and longline tuna fisheries for 2007 was published in the Federal Register on February 26, 2007 (72 FR 8333). Under the Tuna Conventions Act, 16 U.S.C. 951-961 and 971 et seq., NMFS must publish regulations to carry out IATTC recommendations and resolutions that have been approved by DOS.

For the target tuna stocks (yellowfin, bigeye, and skipjack) of this resolution, NMFS believes there may be a modest biological advantage for choosing one closure period over the other because the summer closure would foreclose opportunistic fishing by the southern California small purse seine fleet. This fleet does not fish for the target tuna stocks during the winter months when the target tuna stocks are not available within the range of the fleet's smaller vessels. NMFS also looked at possible economic advantages for determining which closure period to select. As discussed in response to comment 2, NMFS believes there may be value in evaluating whether a summer closure may be less of an economic burden to U.S. interests than a winter closure. For 2007, NMFS has selected the closure beginning August 1, 2007, through September, 11, 2007. All purse seine gear used to target yellowfin, bigeye, and skipjack tunas must be out of the water in the ETP and no yellowfin, bigeye, or skipjack tunas may be retained for the 6-week period beginning August 1, 2007, through September 11, 2007.

This final rule also provides that the U.S. longline fishery for bigeye tuna in the ETP will close for the remainder of the calendar year 2007 after the catch of bigeye by U.S. longline vessels reaches 500 mt. This closure will prohibit deep-set longline gear from being deployed and retaining bigeye tuna in the ETP. Longline vessels will not be subjected to this closure if the permit holder declares to NMFS under the Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for the Pelagic Fisheries of the Western Pacific Region that they intend to shallow-set to target swordfish (50 CFR 665.23). NMFS will close the longline fishery through appropriate procedures so that the 500 mt limit is not exceeded. These actions ensure that U.S. vessels fish in accordance with the conservation and management measures that the IATTC recommended in June 2006.

Comments and Responses

During the comment period for the proposed rule, NMFS received four comments. Comments were received from tuna vessel owners, tuna industry organizations, and a member of the public. Key issues and concerns are summarized below and responded to as follows:

Timing of the Closures

Comment 1: Comments supporting the closure period of August 1, 2007, through September 11, 2007, were received from U.S. large-scale purse seine vessel owners. They noted that in past years, they chose not to fish during the winter as inclement weather on the normal fishing grounds makes fishing difficult and there was an expectation that they could secure dockyard space and conduct vessel repairs during this period. However, during the winter closures in the ETP for years 2004-2006, vessel owners wasted much time in securing dockyard space due to competition for space with other nations. They expressed an interest in using the summer closure for one year to determine if vessel repairs could be conducted more efficiently during the summer closure period relative to past experience.

Response: NMFS understands that the U.S. large-scale purse seine vessel owners prefer the summer closure for 2007 as they envision that this choice may have economic benefits that have not been realized during the past three years when U.S. purse seine vessels were subject to a winter closure. In addition to the potential for a modest conservation benefit, discussed above, adopting the summer closure option for 2007 would allow NMFS to evaluate whether an economic benefit can be realized.

Comment 2: Two commenters expressed a preference for the winter closure for 2007. These comments stated that their ETP operations are based in Ecuador, and Ecuador in past years has chosen the summer closure. Assuming Ecuador's preferred closure will again be the summer period and the United States chooses the winter closure, this will provide some consistent distribution of their fish supply throughout the year. If the United States chooses the summer closure and Ecuador chooses the summer closure for 2007, their concern is that their fish supply opportunities will be limited.

Response: In the years 2004 - 2006, nations party to the IATTC evenly choose the summer and winter closure periods. NMFS believes as in years past, nations party to the IATTC will again evenly choose the summer and winter closure periods and that the global supply of tuna will be balanced and available for purchase to market. At this time, the United States cannot anticipate the closure period Ecuador will select for 2007. Consequently, the U.S. closure period may or may not coincide with Ecuador's.

2007 U.S. Longline Catch

Comment 3: A commenter stated that longlines should be banned permanently and totally forever, but noted that the longline season, as outlined, should be closed at a minimum of August 1 through December 1. The commenter added that the failure to adequately stem overfishing is reflected by this paucity of closure.

Response: The longline tuna fishery closure in the ETP was negotiated on a multilateral basis and strikes a balance between the many competing interests. The nations party to the IATTC prefer to set national quotas rather than time/area closures for this gear type. This final rule provides that the U.S. longline fishery for bigeye tuna in the ETP will close for the remainder of the calendar year 2007 when the catch by U.S. longline vessels reaches 500 mt.

Classification

This action is consistent with the Tuna Conventions Act and with the regulations governing the Pacific Tuna Fisheries at 50 CFR 300.25.

This final rule has been determined to be not significant for the purposes of Executive Order 12866.

An FRFA was prepared that describes the economic impacts of this final rule. A copy of this analysis is available from NMFS (see ADDRESSES). Responses to comments received on the economic impact of the proposed rule were Start Printed Page 30713provided above. A summary of the FRFA follows.

A description of the need for and objectives of this rule is included in the preamble and not repeated here.

The purse seine closure applies to the U.S. tuna purse seine fleet that targets yellowfin, bigeye, and skipjack tunas. The fleet consists of five to ten small vessels (carrying capacity below 400 short tons (363 mt)) and one to two large vessels (carrying capacity 400 short tons (363 mt) or greater). The large vessels usually fish outside U.S. waters and deliver their catch to foreign ports or transship to processors outside the mainland United States. The large vessels are categorized as large business entities (revenues in excess of $4 million per year). A large purse seine vessel typically generates 4,000 to 5,000 mt of tuna valued at between $4 and $5 million per year. The closure should not significantly affect the operations of the one to two large vessels because they are capable of fishing, and do fish, in other areas that would remain open.

The small vessels are categorized as small business entities (average annual revenues below $4 million per year). They fish out of California in the U.S. EEZ most of the year for small pelagic fish (Pacific sardine, Pacific mackerel) and for market squid in summer. Some small vessels harvest yellowfin and skipjack tunas seasonally when they are available. The southern California purse seine fishery opportunistically fishes for tropical tunas when the tropical tunas migrate further north and within range of these vessels, which are not equipped for long-range excursions. Specifically, yellowfin and skipjack tunas intermittently migrate within range of these vessels. However, predicting their movements is uncertain. Tuna landings reported by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission show that since 2001, yellowfin and skipjack tunas can be landed by this southern California purse seine fishery during the months of August, September, and October, although the bulk of these landings occur in September. However, this is not always the case. For example, neither yellowfin nor skipjack tunas ventured close enough to the range of the southern California small purse seine fleet in 2006 resulting in zero landings. For the summer purse seine fishery closure option, this fishery would be precluded from fishing in August and for 11 days in September which still provides the fishery the opportunity to operate for the remainder of September as well as the month of October. In addition, the southern California small purse seine fleet periodically lands albacore and bluefin tunas which are not covered under the IATTC resolution of June 2006 and therefore can be fished during either closure option. It appears that bluefin tuna may also be the preferred species targeted by this fleet as bluefin provide a higher ex-vessel value than either yellowfin or skipjack tunas.

The existing California based longline fishery, which consists of one vessel, targets bigeye tuna. For the tuna longline fleet operating out of Hawaii, there is a maximum of 164 permits available, and 125 active longline vessels participated in the fishery in 2005. The California and Hawaii longline fleets are categorized as small business entities (average annual revenues below $4 million per year). The Hawaii longline fleet, which targets bigeye tuna and swordfish, has traditionally operated outside the boundaries of the ETP. However, in recent years, some vessels of the tuna longline fleet operating out of Hawaii have operated within the boundaries of the ETP. In 2004, 2005, and 2006, the California and Hawaii based longline fishery was limited to 150 mt of bigeye tuna in the ETP. For each of these three years, the 150 mt limit was reached in the ETP and the longline fishery for bigeye tuna was closed. A closure would affect operations of both longline fleets. However, the California based longline fleet is capable of fishing for other species of fish with other gear types in the ETP which should mitigate the effects of any closure. For example, the closure has occurred in the past several years beginning in the summer months when North Pacific albacore tuna appear on the west coast and vessels can switch to surface troll gear to participate in that fishery. Similarly, the Hawaii based longline fleet also fishes for swordfish and can also direct its efforts at bigeye tuna outside the ETP. Because both fleets are capable of fishing for other species, or in the case of the Hawaii longline fleet, in other areas outside the ETP that would remain open, they have the opportunity to continue to fish during the closure.

This rule does not impose reporting or recordkeeping requirements, and the compliance requirements for the closure areas are as described at the outset of this summary.

NMFS considered three alternatives for this final rule: a 6-week summer closure of the purse seine fishery from August 1 through September 20 of 2007, a 6-week winter closure of the purse seine fishery from November 20 through December 31, 2007, or no closures at all. The summer closure best satisfies the objectives of the resolution and the statute to conserve tuna stocks by prohibiting purse seine fishing for the target tuna stocks during the only time when the small purse seine fleet out of southern California might engage in opportunistic fishing for yellowfin, bigeye, and skipjack tuna. The opportunistic chance for the southern California small purse seine fleet to target yellowfin, bigeye, and skipjack tunas is not available in the winter as the tropical tunas do not migrate within the range of these vessels, which are not equipped for long-range excursions, during the winter season. While such fishing is only a very small portion of the overall catch of these species, NMFS believes that by foreclosing this additional fishing opportunity, the summer closure may provide a slightly greater conservation benefit than the winter closure.

The August 1 - September 11 closure alternative may have a slightly greater economic impact on small entities than the November 20 December 31 closure because the additional fishing opportunity for the southern California small purse seine fleet will not be available during the closure period, though this impact is not expected to be significant. The southern California small purse seine fishery normally fishes for coastal pelagic species such as Pacific sardines, Pacific mackerel and market squid. Fishing for these species of fish is not affected by this closure. In recent years, the seasonal tuna harvest has amounted to no more than 5-7% of the total catch for these vessels. The seasonal tuna catch is also intermittent - as stated previously, neither yellowfin nor skipjack tunas ventured close enough to the range of the southern California small purse seine fleet in 2006 resulting in zero landings. Based on an average since 2001, the economic impact on small entities in the California small purse seine fleet who opportunistically are able to target yellowfin, bigeye, and skipjack tunas is less than $0.5 million. Because the opportunity to fish seasonally for yellowfin, bigeye, and skipjack tuna will be available after the closure, during the latter half of September and for the month of October, the economic impact is likely to be less than $0.5 million on average. The ex-vessel value of all small purse seine vessels fishing for coastal pelagic species was $43.5 million in 2005. Therefore NMFS does not believe that the summer closure and an average of less than $0.5 million not realized for the southern California small purse seine fleet will be significant.

NMFS considered the option of a 6-week closure during the winter season beginning on November 20, 2007. Given that NMFS believes the summer closure Start Printed Page 30714may provide a slightly greater conservation benefit than the winter closure, and that NMFS believes it is reasonable to evaluate whether the winter closure will allow fishery participants to realize an economic benefit pertaining to vessel operations, NMFS did not choose this alternative.

NMFS also considered the alternative of not implementing the 2006 IATTC Tuna Conservation Resolution. This alternative would have imposed no economic costs on small entities. However, failure to implement measures that have been agreed to pursuant to the Convention would violate the United States' obligations under the Convention, and would violate the Tuna Conventions Act.

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Authority: 16 U.S.C. 951-961 and 971 et seq.

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Dated: May 29, 2007.

Samuel D. Rauch III,

Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs, National Marine Fisheries Service.

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[FR Doc. E7-10718 Filed 6-1-07; 8:45 am]

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