Citizens Call on NOAA to Strengthen Bluefin Protections

The overlap of bluefin tuna’s spawning area with BP’s oil.On September 27th, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) held a public hearing in Belle Chasse, LA on proposed bluefin tuna regulations, attended by approximately 70 Gulf residents. Among other things, these proposed rules would restrict surface longline fishing in portions of the Gulf of Mexico during April and May, and implement an individual vessel annual cap for bluefin killed on surface lines. Dozens of people testified at the hearing, calling on NOAA to strengthen protections for bluefin and commit to helping fund fishermen’s transitions from longlines to more sustainable gear. Missed the hearing? You can still take action here.Bluefin tuna were directly impacted by the BP disaster. With billions of restoration dollars soon flowing to the Gulf, NOAA has a real opportunity for win/win when it comes to protecting bluefin tuna. At the hearing, GRN and our partners called on NOAA to restrict surface longline fishing in the Gulf, while using BP disaster restoration dollars to help fishermen transition to more sustainable gear.The Gulf of Mexico is the only known spawning ground for Western Atlantic bluefin tuna, and even before the BP disaster, bluefin tuna populations were threatened. Due to decades of overfishing and wasteful fishing methods, the population of western Atlantic bluefin tuna has lost 64 percent of its 1970s level. Expanded restrictions on longlining during the spawning season could help these populations rebound.”These proposed rules just don’t go far enough when it comes to protecting bluefin tuna during spawning season,” stated Steve Murchie, Campaign Director for Gulf Restoration Network. “NOAA should expand restrictions on longline fishing from January to June and include all areas where bluefin are known to spawn.” Although longliners are targeting other species like yellowfin tuna and swordfish, they also catch more than 80 unintended marine species – including bluefin tuna. Alternative, more selective fishing methods – including “greenstick” gear that is currently being studied here in the Gulf – are available, but transitioning to new gears would be expensive for fishermen. Funds for this effort could come from the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) from the BP disaster.”The impacts to bluefin spawning areas from the BP oil disaster exacerbated the already existing problems, and have impacted bluefin and their environment,” said Bobby Nguyen, a fisheries consultant. “NRDA funding could help mitigate the costs to longline fishermen in the Gulf by providing the resources to acquire and install the necessary selective fishing gear and the smaller, more efficient boats that these gears require, as well as provide education opportunities for the new system.” Bobby Nguyen has been involved with the pilot project to test GreenStick and Swordfish Buoy Gears. He testified that the more selective alternative gear is proving to be effective in reducing unintended catch and also bringing in top grade yellowfin tuna. He said that the results of the study, which is being conducted by Dr. David Kerstetter of Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, are expected to show that the alternative gear can be economical, effective and much less wasteful. There was opposition at the hearing as well. Captain Kannin (Kenny) Pham spoke on behalf of the dozen longliners at the hearing that the proposed rules threaten his ability to make a living. I was very moved by his heartfelt plea and as it happened, my turn to speak was right after Captain Pham. I said that I (we) have compassion for these dedicated working men. I reaffirmed Gulf Restoration Network’s commitment to press as long and as hard as it takes to get funding from the BP penalties for a transition to more selective gears and vessels. Please make your voice count by taking action here to call for better protections of bluefin, and funding for a gear transition.I doubt that anyone expected 70 citizens to show up the hearing. Even more surprising was the diversity of people and the genuine interest with which people listened to each other with respect. True, passions were high and livelihoods and lives at stake, but I am proud of the tone that GRN has set over the past year of seeking the win/win solution of long term vibrant and sustainable fisheries with our Gulf Fish Forever Campaign.Testimony was given and translated in three languages, English, Vietnamese and Spanish. A good portion of the Vietnamese American longline commercial fishing fleet was present. NOAA arranged for translation.There was even a “mermaid” at the hearing. She asked me to address the crowd before she spoke to ask that her message be taken seriously. She actually appealed to both fishermen and conservationists saying that mermaids have looked out for fishermen for centuries and pleading for awareness of the results of overfishing and waste.Harry Lowenburg is GRN’s Gulf Fish Forever Organizer.