Hawaii on course to avoid year-end tuna shortage

AP News
Posted: Dec 10, 2009 12:19 AM

A feared year-end tuna shortage in Hawaii likely will be averted, meaning residents can eat their good-luck tuna at New Year's as usual.

Officials earlier estimated the Hawaii-based longline fishing fleet would hit its annual bigeye catch limit for waters west of the islands around the end of November. That threatened to deprive the Hawaii market of its favorite fresh- caught tuna just as demand peaks for the holiday.

But the National Marine Fisheries Service now believes the boats will reach their limit sometime after Dec. 20, allowing the fleet to deliver bigeye through year's end.

"For all intents and purposes, the market will still be receiving bigeye tuna through the end of the year," said Michael Tosatto, deputy regional administrator for the fisheries service in Honolulu.

The custom of eating tuna at the beginning of the year dates to early Japanese immigrants, for whom eating sea bream at New Year's was good luck. Because sea bream isn't found in Hawaii waters, the new immigrants ate tuna instead. The ritual has since spread among Hawaii's various ethnic groups, and the tradition is celebrated statewide.

Every new year, thousands line up at fish markets and grocery stores to buy their celebratory tuna supply.

This is the first year locals faced the possibility of a bigeye fishery closure. That's because the international body governing the region's migratory fish stocks _ the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission _ concluded last year that bigeye tuna was being overfished. Commissioners ordered that fisheries reduce their take by 30 percent overall.

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The Hawaii longline fishery must do its part by cutting 10 percent from its 2004 harvest. That means fishermen will be allowed to bring in only 3,763 metric tons this year.

Tosatto said the fisheries service uses historical catch data and statistics for the number of boats currently fishing to estimate when the fleet will hit the limit. It plans to inform boats at least seven days before the limit will be reached.

Boats generally fish more than 100 miles from Hawaii and need as long as two weeks to return to the islands from their fishing grounds.