The Public Weighs In: Strictly Enforce the Billfish Conservation Act

by Ken Hinman

We’d like to thank the many Wild Oceans supporters who signed our petition asking the National Marine Fisheries Service to enforce the Billfish Conservation Act of 2012 with a strict prohibition on the sale of marlin, sailfish and spearfish in the continental United States, allowing only a limited exemption for the local sale and consumption of billfish in Hawaii and neighboring Pacific island territories. The petition was submitted to the agency July 3rd along with other letters of support from our allies in the fishing and environmental communities.

In addition, Wild Oceans submitted a detailed, six-page written statement, pointing out that the Billfish Conservation Act (BCA) will provide enduring conservation benefits for these vulnerable species if properly implemented and enforced. The BCA prohibits the importation and sale of any species of Atlantic or Pacific billfish in the U.S., with an exemption for “traditional fisheries and markets” in the western Pacific. In other words, the Act ends the sale of billfish, whether of foreign or domestic origin, on the U.S. mainland. Hawaii, Guam, Samoa and the Marshall Islands et al will continue to regulate local sale and consumption of billfish under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

That’s our reading of the law. But because the exemption language does not explicitly say billfish landed in Hawaii may not be sold on the mainland, NMFS requested public comment on what restrictions can and should be imposed on the transportation and sale of fish caught under the “Hawaii exemption”.

The intent of the section 4(c) exemption to the general prohibition on sales is to allow for traditional island fisheries and markets in a manner that supports the Act’s over-riding purpose, which is to conserve billfish. In our letter, we warned NMFS that interpreting the law to allow these fish to be transported for sale in the mainland market, where foreign imports – an estimated 30,000 billfish a year – are now prohibited, would clearly and substantially undermine the Act in a number of ways.

We cited the official report of the House Committee on Natural Resources, which drafted and approved the exemption language, as well as the statement of committee chair Doc Hastings (R-WA), declaring their intent: “The prohibition would not apply to the State of Hawaii and Pacific Insular Areas as long as the billfish were only sold in Hawaii or a Pacific Insular area;” the exemption is for the “existing limited, traditional local consumption of billfish products.” The bill’s original sponsor, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), told the full House right before it passed the bipartisan bill by unanimous consent: “By eliminating the sale in the continental U.S., passage of this bill will support the billfish population growth, a healthy ocean ecosystem, and improve recreational fishing opportunities.” (my emphasis)

Implementing the Act with this strict interpretation of the exemption not only most closely follows Congressional intent but, as we demonstrated in our letter, it also:

  • Most effectively upholds the Act’s purpose, which is to increase conservation protections for billfish, not merely replace imports with fish from Hawaii;
  • Is most consistent with established international trade law, which does not look favorably on giving our own fishermen a market advantage at the expense of foreign fishermen under the guise of conservation;
  • Makes enforcing the BCA simple and cost-effective, minimizing the chances that prohibited billfish, Atlantic or Pacific, can enter unlawfully into U.S. markets and undermine our conservation efforts; and,
  • Fairly balances national and regional interests, by respecting the needs of traditional island fishermen and cultures while advancing the overall U.S. objective of increasing protections for depleted global populations of billfish.

The Billfish Conservation Act complements conservation and management of billfish in the United States, which long ago established the goal of removing billfish from commerce, reserving these fish for the catch-and-release recreational fishery. The exception is in Hawaii and neighboring territories, and that exception is recognized in the BCA, which allows sales only in the Pacific islands, for local consumption. When strictly interpreted in this way, the BCA gives us the win-win-win of further enhancing billfish conservation, protecting the U.S. economy and preserving traditional fisheries.