HONOLULU — A federal judge has ruled longline fishermen in Hawaii may continue catching more bigeye tuna, or ahi, than the maximum set by international regulators.
U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi on Wednesday issued the ruling rejecting environmental groups' claims that the extra fishing is illegal.
The opinion came just in time for the year-end holidays when Hawaii consumers crowd stores to buy ahi sashimi for Christmas and New Year's celebrations. A ruling adverse to the fishermen had the potential to shut down or curtail the Hawaii fishery for the rest of the calendar year.
Michael Tosatto, the Pacific Islands regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said Thursday the agency is happy the judge found the rules lawful.
"I think we're just pleased that the fishery remains on a stable footing without the need for further action," Tosatto said.
An international commission that regulates commercial fishing between Indonesia and Hawaii set a limit of about 3,500 metric tons for Hawaii longline fishermen this year. The Hawaii fishery reached the limit — set by the 26-member nation Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission — in August.
But the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service created a rule allowing additional catch limits for three U.S. Pacific territories. It then allowed the territories to allocate up to half of their catch limit to Hawaii-based longline fishing vessels.
Environmentalists sued, arguing the arrangement undermines international agreements aimed at eliminating bigeye overfishing.
Kobayashi's ruling referred to the practice as "quota shifting." She concluded that it wasn't arbitrary and capricious. She said setting up the system didn't exceed the fisheries service's authority.
A staff attorney for one of the plaintiff groups expressed disappointment in the decision.
Bigeye tuna is being overfished in the Pacific, said Catherine Kilduff of the Center for Biological Diversity. Although bigeye tuna fishing is being managed internationally, the rules aren't adequate to protect the fish, she said.
"We were really relying on the U.S. government to make the right decision," Kilduff said.
Bigeye is one of two tuna varieties known as ahi. The other is yellowfin. It's popular for sushi and fish steaks.
Jennifer Sinco Kelleher And Audrey McAvoy, The Associated Press