On Tuesday, August 20, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, or NOAA Fisheries, proposed new bluefin tuna regulations that will directly impact fishermen from Texas to Maine. This proposed rule is a step in the right direction for ending the waste of depleted Atlantic bluefin, but some changes are needed to more fully protect these fish.
Atlantic bluefin tuna are incredible animals. They grow up to 10 feet long, weigh as much as 1,500 pounds, and live as many as 40 years. But the population of western Atlantic bluefin tuna has declined to just 64 percent of its 1970s level, due to decades of overfishing and wasteful fishing methods.
As proposed, the new regulations would:
For the past 30 years, the agency has tried to limit the number of Atlantic bluefin caught and killed by surface longlines. Those measures included a prohibition on directly targeting bluefin in the Gulf of Mexico, closing certain areas to surface longlines, and requiring the use of “weak” hooks intended to straighten out to release large bluefin in the Gulf.
So far, nothing has provided an effective long-term solution. In fact, U.S. surface longlines catch more bluefin tuna in the Gulf now than they did prior to 1982. A recent report from NOAA Fisheries showed that the surface longline fishery in the Gulf of Mexico and western Atlantic wasted almost 25 percent of the entire U.S.bluefin tuna quota in 2012. This gear also catches and kills more than 80 other types of nontarget ocean wildlife including depleted blue marlin, sharks and endangered sea turtles.
Bringing bluefin populations back to healthier levels is a goal shared by environmentalists and fishermen alike. Bluefin are apex predators that help keep marine ecosystems in balance and make oceans more resilient. Bluefin are also highly sought after by commercial fishermen and recreational anglers along the Atlantic coast. Stopping the waste of bluefin on surface longlines will help restore the western population which will in turn provide more and better fishing opportunities for those who target them with highly selective gear.
Dr. David Kerstetter, of the NOVA Southeastern University Oceanographic Center is wrapping up a one year study of effectiveness and economic viability of alternative commercial fishing gear for yellowfin tuna and swordfish. Two Louisiana longline vessels have been participating in that study.
Much of the impact of the BP oil disaster was to marine life, yet very little of the $1 billion for BP's Natural Resource Damage Assessment early restoration projects has gone to deep water projects. The BP Horizon oil disaster happened during the bluefin spawning season and the Gulf of Mexico is the only known spawning grounds of the western Atlantic bluefin tuna. Hence funding exists that could help Gulf longline fishermen transition to more selective gear and vessels.
For the next 60 days, NOAA Fisheries will seek public comments on its new rule that could help stop the waste of one of the most remarkable yet depleted fish in the sea. The public comment period ends on October 23. The agency will host 10 hearings during which the public can urge NOAA Fisheries to issue a strong final rule, including one that is tentatively scheduled for September 24, in Belle Chasse, LA.
Tom Wheatley manages the Gulf of Mexico surface longline campaign for The Pew Charitable Trusts and is available to discuss the rule and explain how it will directly impact U.S bluefin tuna fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico and the western Atlantic Ocean. Harry Lowenburg, Gulf Fish Forever Campaign Organizer for the Gulf Restoration Network, is also available to speak about efforts to protect bluefin in the Gulf of Mexico.