Bluefin tuna regs now on the table: Help protect these amazing fish

bluefin tuna

Bluefin tuna. ©Carl Safina

There is good news when it comes to western Atlantic Bluefin tuna – not something you hear often – unintended catch (or bycatch) of this species has decreased dramatically over the past few years in the Gulf of Mexico, their primary spawning (or reproductive) grounds. Sadly, this may change in the months to come. The government branch working to create and enforce regulations for United States fisheries, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has opened discussion to modify regulations protecting this vulnerable species. There is no data to suggest their population will continue improving if these management changes are implemented.

Bluefin tuna are incredible, powerful, majestic species that due to heavy fishing pressures in years past, are also endangered. Bluefin tuna is not always the first species that comes to mind when we think about charismatic creatures we love and want to protect. They are equally impressive as a sea turtle or large whale and serve as important predators in our ocean helping to keep the ecosystem healthy and in balance.

Regulations are in place to help protect Bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico from interactions with the pelagic longline fishery targeting swordfish and smaller yellowfin tuna. Longline fisheries can release over 30 miles of fishing line into the ocean staggered with hundreds, sometimes thousands of hooks allowing for any passerby to bite down. Bycatch in this fishery is extensive. Currently, Gulf of Mexico longline fishermen are required to use “weak hooks” year round that straighten or break when a larger fish, such as a Bluefin tuna, bites down. A second regulation protecting Bluefin tuna sets Gear Restricted Areas simply prohibiting long line fishing activity in a designated area for a portion of the year. Closures in this case are due to peak spawning activity of Bluefin tuna thus decreasing the potential of fishing gear interactions and stressors during this sensitive time.

  • Weak Hook Regulation: In 2011, NOAA mandated the use of weak hooks for all longline fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. Since this regulation was implemented, the total amount of dead Bluefin tuna associated with this fishery has been reduced by 75%. A compromise for six month use of weak hooks (January to June) modifies the current year round regulation protecting Bluefin during their spawning season and eliminating the mandate during less sensitive months.
  • Gear Restricted Area Regulation: The Highly Migratory Species Fisheries Management Plan was put into place in 2006 and works to protect multiple species, Bluefin tuna included. In 2014, Amendment 7 was incorporated creating Gear Restricted Areas, closing nearly 27,000 square miles to longline fishing activity in the Gulf of Mexico from April through May during Bluefin peak spawning season. Since Amendment 7 was implemented, an 82% reduction of Bluefin tuna fishing interactions has resulted from this small window of closed fishery access. Any modification to this regulation could prove detrimental to the improved Bluefin tuna population status. We cannot allow for NOAA to reduce or eliminate this current closure.

Arguments to modify regulations are weak. In particular, complaints of decreased target species catch, both yellowfin tuna and swordfish and concerns of a declining longline fishing fleet.

  • Decreased catch: In 2015 and 2016, landings of both yellowfin tuna and swordfish were only reduced by a few hundred fish each during the closed area months, a negligible amount. Additionally, several longline fishermen are paid not to fish from January to June post the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.  This is part of a larger effort to restore the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. Alternative gear, such as greenstick or buoy gear can also be used year round to fish for target species, even in longline-restricted areas.
  • Declining fleet: The pelagic longline fishing fleet has been in decline over the years; this was the case prior to Amendment 7 being implemented and Gear Restricted Areas being determined.

NOAA is also interested in eliminating redundancy in overall fisheries regulations. Modifying current regulations as a result of potential redundancy is premature at this point; the two regulations discussed have not been implemented long enough or studied to suggest elimination or modifications will guarantee continued improvement in Bluefin tuna populations.

We are the reason Bluefin tuna are in danger of going extinct and we can be the reason this incredible species begins to thrive again. There is no question in how to move forward, Bluefin tuna need our continued protection. Let NOAA know the only acceptable modification to weak hook regulations in the Gulf of Mexico longline fishery is mandating a six-month use from January through June and that there are NO acceptable modifications to Gear Restricted Area regulations. Leave your comments here by May 1st to help ensure modifications to current regulations will have no repercussions on Bluefin tuna’s long-term survival.

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