NMFS: Rolling Back Longline Protections for Bluefin Tuna

Fishery managers might remove current protections for spawning bluefin in the Gulf of Mexico

Bluefin Tuna

Bluefin Tuna

Courtesy NOAA FisheriesCourtesy NOAA Fisheries

OPINION

Fact: Decades of overfishing and poor management have reduced the population of western Atlantic bluefin to a mere fraction of its historical levels.

Fact: The Gulf of Mexico is critical to the health of western Atlantic bluefin because it is the one and only known place where these fish spawn.

Fact: The bluefin spawn in the spring, so that’s when they’re most prevalent in the Gulf, and that’s when they need protection.

Fact: Nearly all the mortality to large spawning bluefin in the Gulf comes from longliners.

None of this was lost on the National Marine Fisheries Service (aka NOAA Fisheries) when in 2015 it established two Gear Restricted Areas in the Gulf of Mexico where, for eight weeks, longlining would be prohibited to give spawning bluefin a break.

Despite that restriction pertaining to only two areas (small in relation to the entire Gulf) and only for two months (April and May), it worked. Following NMFS’ creation of these limited GRAs, the number of bluefin hooked on longlines during those months has dropped more than 80 percent.

Before these restrictions, the longline fleet was annually discarding (by law) nearly 70 metric tons of dead Gulf bluefin, exceeding the quota that NMFS allowed it by as much as 218 percent. Today, they no longer exceed that quota.

In other words, this program has been an unqualified success.

So what do you do with a program that is achieving its goals?

Why, you weaken or kill it, of course.

At least that’s what you propose if you’re NMFS.

The agency calls its baffling and toxic proposal the Draft Regulatory Amendment to Modify Pelagic Longline Bluefin Tuna Area-Based and Weak-Hook-Management Measures.

I call it nuts.

A coalition of most leading marine-industry and environmental groups feels similarly.

In a letter to the Highly Migratory Species division of NMFS in September (during a public-comment period), leaders of the American Sportfishing Association, BoatU.S., the Center for Sportfishing Policy, the Coastal Conservation Association, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, the International Game Fish Association and the National Marine Manufacturers Association said “Now is not the time to consider removing measures that protect spawning western Atlantic bluefin in the Gulf of Mexico.” In a separate letter, environmental powerhouse Pew shared similar concerns.

So what in the world would prompt NMFS to reverse its own successful strategy to protect bluefin tuna? In an agency-scoping document that explains the reasoning behind proposals that would lessen or end bluefin protections, the phrase potential swordfish landings comes up again and again. That’s because (a) the United States is not meeting its internationally allotted quota for swordfish and (b) longliners have said they’d like to be able to catch more (i.e. they want no part of the Gulf off limits at any time). But there’s a flaw the size of Texas in that thinking: The Gulf longline fleet targets yellowfin tuna and not swordfish, which are caught only secondarily.

Perhaps NMFS will come to its senses: At press time, no proposed alternative had been selected to become law, though from the outset, the agency has indicated its “preferred alternative” is C3, which would reduce the areas off-limits to longlining and/or diminish two closed months to an even shorter period. Doing that would serve only to help longliners take more yellowfin and kill more bluefin (and billfish).

NMFS insists it’s no longer an agency concerned mainly with promoting only commercial fishing. Let’s see if in this case it acts to protect bluefin or to sacrifice the tuna for the interests of longliners