Blue Ocean Institute

Jun 7th
2011

Hey, NOAA! Just exactly how endangered does a tuna have to be???

One day many, many years ago I picked up a book of autobiographical essays by a young impoverished single mother. One of the essays was about her experience of applying for a grant for young impoverished single mothers and being told that she wasn’t young, impoverished, or single enough to be eligible. She was left to wonder just how impoverished and single a young mother had to be in order to be eligible for the grant.

I was left wondering the same thing about bluefin tuna after reading that NOAA has declined to assign endangered status to the few remaining bluefin that exist. Sorry, Charlie. NOAA doesn’t want to take the basic steps necessary to give you even a fighting chance of coming back from the brink.

According to their press release (which was released late on the Friday afternoon preceding a long weekend, ensuring that it could easily get neglected and be dropped from the normal news cycle), “Based on careful scientific review, we have decided the best way to ensure the long-term sustainability of bluefin tuna is through international cooperation and strong domestic fishery management,” said Eric Schwaab, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service. “The United States will continue to be a leader in advocating science-based quotas at ICCAT, full compliance with these quotas and other management measures to ensure the long-term viability of this and other important fish stocks.”

How’s that again? You believe that “the best way to ensure the long-term sustainability of bluefin tuna is through international cooperation and strong domestic fishery management…” Well, okay, I’m with you so far, but wouldn’t “strong domestic fishery management” include declaring an obviously endangered species to be endangered? Their refusal to label bluefin as endangered is the moral equivalent of knowing that your kids are on the top floor of a burning building and deciding that the best course of action is to lie down and take a nap. Does NOAA think they’re going to get a second chance to make this decision? A “do over”? Don’t count on it.

Bluefin populations have declined by 80% since the 1970’s, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Blue Ocean Institute founder Carl Safina explains that, “One of the weaknesses of the Endangered Species Act is that it sets a floor – preventing total extinction – rather than setting a standard of abundant, viable populations. (By contrast, the Clean Water Act sets a standard: thatAmerica’s waterways must be “fishable and swimmable.”)”

One of the variables that makes any recovery of bluefin populations so dubious is that they migrate across the Atlantic and so come under the purview of many different nations’ fishing laws as well as international laws. Sadly, bluefin are poorly protected wherever they go because commercial interests call the shots.

On top of succumbing to pressure from overfishing, bluefin nurseries took a hit when the Horizon Blowout oil spill contaminated some of their spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. (See the map of their nurseries and range here.)

In his blog, Safina recounts attempts to try to protect bluefin nurseries: “…we sued the U.S. government to at least close the Gulf of Mexico spawning areas during the spawning season. We lost.”

Barry Estabrook writes in his column on the fate of bluefin tuna, “According to some estimates, 20 percent of the tuna born there last year died. ‘The Obama administration turned a blind eye to the staggering declines of Atlantic bluefin tuna in recent years,’ said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity in a press release.”

NOAA states that it will review this decision by early 2013, “when more information will be available about the effects of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill, as well as a new stock assessment from the scientific arm of ICCAT.” Let’s just hope that the additional information isn’t that the bluefin are all gone.

- Roz Cummins

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