Bluefin Tuna: Promise and Problems in a New Government Proposal

For sixty years, U.S. fishermen targeting yellowfin tuna and swordfish in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean with longlines have been capturing and killing severely depleted bluefin tuna. Longlines, which can stretch for 40 miles long and contain hundreds of hooks, are very indiscriminate, catching many other non-target species as well.

Of particular concern, longline fishermen capture large numbers of bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico, where bluefin have come to breed. In fact, for the bluefin tuna population that swims in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, and up the U.S. East Coast, with fish commonly swimming as far as Europe and back, the Gulf of Mexico is the only known breeding area. Longline fishermen also capture significant numbers of bluefin tuna off North Carolina, where they congregate at certain times of the year. And because longline fishermen are only allowed to retain a limited amount of bluefin tuna, they must discard many of the bluefin they catch back to sea, even though they come up dead. Not only is this a total waste but it is contributing to the continued depleted state of this magnificent species.

If left alone in the wild, bluefin tuna can grow to 1500 lbs. They can also swim as fast as a car, in short bursts. And as a top predator, they play an important role in our ocean ecosystems.

Bluefin tuna- an enormous fish. Photo by Carl Safina.

Unfortunately, fishing for bluefin tuna is wiping them out. Fishing reduced Atlantic bluefin tuna to a very low abundance between the 1970’s and 1990’s, and today they remain deeply depleted. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists bluefin tuna as endangered on their ‘Red List of Threatened Species.’

For more than a decade, conservation groups [including Blue Ocean Institute] have been working to get stronger protections for Atlantic bluefin tuna – encouraging fishery managers to stop letting longline fishermen catch wasteful amounts of bluefin tuna and to protect their important Gulf of Mexico breeding area.

Bluefin tuna –faster than shredded water. Photo by Carl Safina.

Well, this past August, U.S. fishery managers with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) finally proposed a new rule that COULD help limit bluefin tuna catch by longline fishermen – BUT only if the rule is strengthened.

The new rule would give each longline vessel an allotted amount of bluefin tuna catch and require them to stop fishing when they caught their allotted amount. And fishermen would have to retain all bluefin tuna – no more discarding dead bluefin back to sea. The new rule would also limit longlines from fishing in part of the Gulf of Mexico and off Cape Hatteras North Carolina during the times when bluefin tuna congregate in those areas.

But the proposed closure to longline fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico still leaves too big an area open and too long a season open to fishing. Managers need to extend the longline closure to at least cover the 3 peak months of the bluefin tuna breeding season (March-May). And establish the closure for the ENTIRE Gulf of Mexico so that all important bluefin breeding grounds are protected, not just some.

As well, the new rule proposes to take away bluefin tuna catch from fishermen that use targeted methods to catch bluefin, so they can give more bluefin tuna catch to the longline fishery – A seriously wrong move! Giving longline fishermen more bluefin tuna to catch does not encourage them to stop this wasteful catch or promote sustainable fishing. We should instead encourage longline fishermen to switch to the more selective gears that are now available (1).

Bluefin Tuna. Photo by Sandra Critelli.

If U.S. fishery managers strengthened the current proposed rule, it could be a historic moment for bluefin tuna – It may just give them a fighting chance at survival and recovery.

We must fight for bluefin tuna, because this fish is truly worth saving! Blue Ocean Institute is writing to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to urge them to strengthen protections for bluefin tuna. If you would like to write to the NMFS too, please visit this page !


(1) Further Reading:


Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.


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