11/20/2014 04:15 EST | Updated 01/20/2015 05:59 EST

Groups sue to stop US rule they say undermines efforts to end Pacific bigeye tuna overfishing

HONOLULU, Hawaii - Environmental groups on Thursday sued the National Marine Fisheries Service to challenge a new rule for fishing bigeye tuna, a popular species for sushi and fish steaks.

The regulation undermines international efforts to end overfishing of bigeye, said the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court by the environmental law firm Earthjustice on behalf of the Conservation Council for Hawaii and two other groups.

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which regulates commercial fishing between Indonesia and Hawaii, has established an annual quota of 3,763 metric tons of bigeye for U.S.-flagged longline vessels in the central and western Pacific.

But the lawsuit said the National Marine Fisheries Service's new rule invents separate additional catch limits for three U.S. Pacific territories: American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The rule then allows the territories to allocate up to half of their catch limit to Hawaii-based longline fishing vessels. This nearly doubles the amount of bigeye that U.S. ships may catch in the central and western Pacific, the lawsuit said.

The complaint asked the court to void the rule and declare the agency in violation of federal law.

The National Marine Fisheries Service office in Honolulu couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said the U.S. should lead by example. "We're not going to be able to solve the overfishing problem for bigeye unless all nations play by the rules," Henkin said in a statement.

Longline fishing vessels string a line in the ocean, ranging from one mile to 50 miles long, to catch fish. They run smaller lines with baited hooks off the central line and wait for bait to attract fish.

About 90 per cent of the bigeye caught in the western and central Pacific last year, however, is estimated to have been fished by a different type of ship called purse seine, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trust.

Purse seine vessels, which are large industrial ships that use giant nets to surround and capture schools of tuna, also catch juvenile bigeye. Longline ships catch adult bigeye.