Ecological risk assessment of the Marshall Islands longline tuna fishery
To support implementing an ecosystem approach to fisheries management, ecological risk assessment (ERA) methods have recently been developed for the continuum of data-deficient to data-rich fisheries. A semi-quantitative ERA was conducted for the Marshall Islands longline bigeye tuna (Thunnus obesus) fishery. The study used information from analyses of observer data, surveys of captains and crew and inventories of gear and equipment. Relative risks were evaluated through a consideration of phylogenetic uniqueness, risk of population extirpation, risk of species extinction and importance in ecosystem regulation. The fishery presents a highest relative risk to leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), green (Chelonia mydas) and olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) sea turtle Regional Management Units that overlap with the fishery, in that order. The next highest relative risk is to affected stocks of oceanic whitetip (Carcharhinus longimanus), blue (Prionace glauca), and silky (Carcharhinus falciformis) sharks, in that sequence. Seabird bycatch is likely not problematic. There was inadequate information to assess risks to cetacean populations. Risks to stocks of market and non-market species of marine fishes with r-selected life history characteristics were not assessed. This is because estimates of critical threshold levels of local and absolute abundance and current biomass are not known for many of these stocks. Several best practice gear technology methods to mitigate problematic catch of vulnerable species groups are currently employed: monofilament leaders, whole fish for bait, single-hooking fish bait, no lightsticks, and no fishing at shallow submerged features. Setting terminal tackle below 100 m and carrying and using best practice handling and release equipment were methods identified to reduce fishing mortality and injury of vulnerable species. More information is needed to determine if weaker hooks should be prescribed to mitigate cetacean bycatch. The large benefit to sea turtles of replacing remaining J-shaped hooks with circle hooks might outweigh a possible small increase in elasmobranch catch rates. The consumption of 2024 l of fuel per tonne of landed catch, which is within the range of available estimated rates from similar fisheries, could be reduced, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, through more frequent maintenance and upgrading vessel equipment and materials. Observer data quality may be adequate to support a quantitative Level 3 ERA to determine the significance of the effect of various factors on standardized catch rates and to estimate population-level effects from fishing mortality.