Opinion

Last Chance for the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna?

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The highest level of marlin bycatch in the U.S. is taken by U.S. pelagic longline vessels in the Gulf of Mexico targeting yellowfin tuna. According to NOAA observer data, the bycatch of documented discarded billfish in the Gulf in 2007 and 2008 included 1031 billfish caught, with 400 dead discards, 589 live releases, 36 lost, and 7 unknown condition.

And the only offshore Atlantic species in worse shape than marlin is the North Atlantic bluefin tuna. Yet this summer, the National Marine Fisheries Management Service (NMFS) issued a notice that they may allow longliners in the Gulf of Mexico to take even more bluefin where they are spawning, catch even more swordfish and encourage more longline effort into the marlin spawning season.

“Directed” fishing for bluefins or marlin while targeting swordfish and yellowfin tuna is illegal. But longliners are allowed to keep up to three bluefins as “bycatch,” and the fish are worth so much on the market they are incentivized to set out miles and miles of baited hooks in the bluefin's only known spawning aggregation in the Western Atlantic, the gyres off the loop current in the Gulf of Mexico.

The announcement outraged a broad array of anglers and conservation advocates, as evidenced by the turnout by CCA members, Billfish Foundation Members, and conservation organizations such as the Pew Environment Group, at a hearing held in late July at IGFA headquarters.

A broad coalition of fishing and conservation groups see this threat as an opportunity to judo-flip longline industry pressure on NMFS into a ban of pelagic longlining in the Gulf of Mexico, at least during bluefin spawning season (February through May), and marlin spawning season, which occurs in the late spring and summer months. At the same time, they hope to convince U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to support what's called a CITES Appendix 1 listing for bluefins. A CITES listing bans the trade of endangered species. For example, ivory cannot be taken across borders. So, a CITES listing would solve the problem on the supply end to Japan, the demand from which is driving the overfishing in the Mediterranean and in the Western Atlantic. (A CITES listing would not prevent the sale of bluefins in the U.S. or recreational anglers from targeting them.)

Public comment on the proposed bluefin and swordfish rule changes ends Monday, August 31. Bluefin, marlin and the many types of bycatch including sea turtles need your support. Please send NMFS a strong, three-fold message: 1) Demand an extension of the public comment period so that you have adequate time to make detailed comments; 2) Oppose increases in allowable bluefin bycatch; and 3) Fight to see the spawning areas of bluefin tuna and marlin closed to longlining.

For more information and to sign the action alert, visit www.billfish.org. You can also send a personalized message to the email address provided on those links.