Possible Bluefin Protection
NOAA Fisheries today 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 by 64 percent of its 1970s level, due to decades of overfishing and wasteful fishing methods.
As proposed, the new regulations would:
· Close a portion of the Gulf of Mexico—the only known spawning ground for the western Atlantic population—to surface longline fishing for the months of April and May. Alternative, highly selective fishing gears would be allowed in those waters. While the proposed time and area closure is a welcome change in position by NOAA Fisheries, it’s too small and too short. Expanding the closure to surface longlines to include January through June and the entire known breeding ground would more effectively protect spawning bluefin tuna. It would also encourage a transition from wasteful longlines to more targeted fishing methods.
· Implement an annual cap for bluefin killed on surface longlines along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
· Establish an associated Individual Bluefin Quota system that introduces a level of responsibility at the vessel level never before seen in this fishery and creates a real economic disincentive to catch and kill bluefin on surface longlines.
· Take quota away from bluefin tuna fishermen who use highly targeted methods and give it to wasteful surface longline fishermen. This does nothing to promote conservation, allow the depleted population to rebuild or encourage the use of more selective fishing gear.
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, including harpoons and rod and reel.
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.
Tom Wheatley manages the Gulf of Mexico surface longline campaign for The Pew Charitable Trusts and Jason Schratwieser serves as the conservation director for the International Game Fish Association. Both can 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.
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