National Policy

Wicked Tune-Up for Tuna Rules

Atlantic bluefin tuna

A bluefin hauled in off Cape Cod. This fish was tagged and released live.

Fishermen who catch tuna with harpoons, hand gear, purse seine nets, and longlines gathered last Wednesday in Gloucester, MA, for a hearing on proposed changes to the way we manage the catch of the Atlantic bluefin tuna.

Bluefin are highly prized for the sushi market and for recreational fishing. Strong, sleek, and muscular, these fish are astonishingly fast giants that can reach well over a thousand pounds. But their popularity has led to plummeting populations and has landed the bluefin on the red list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has long struggled to reduce the amount of Atlantic bluefin lost as bycatch to surface longlines, especially in the Gulf of Mexico, where many of these highly migratory fish spawn. The agency’s proposed rule, currently open for comment, includes the latest attempt to address that problem. The rule is long (more than 500 pages) and complex. As one might expect, something of that heft is a mixed bag for fishermen depending on how and where they fish.

Charter boat captain and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council member John McMurray writes in Reel Time that the draft rule is “a huge step in the right direction” but “should probably go a little further than it does.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Lee Crockett hits a similar tone in his latest Bottom Line blog post, writing that these regulations would help “but we need more changes to effectively safeguard one of the most remarkable, yet depleted, fish in the sea.”

Here’s a quick rundown of what these two veterans of fisheries management see as good, bad and “meh, needs work” in NOAA’s rule.

Good: A new annual cap system would mean that once longline users exhausted their quota they would have to stop fishing unless they were able to purchase quota from another vessel operator. Also, all longline vessels would need video cameras and data recorders, and would report daily to account for their catch.

As McMurray puts it, these items would “introduce a level of responsibility at the vessel level never before seen in this fishery, and create a real economic disincentive to catch and kill bluefin on surface longlines.”

Needs Work: Proposed fishery closures off of Hatteras in North Carolina and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Crockett says the N.C. closure is a good idea but the Gulf proposal is just not enough: “To fully protect bluefin, the area should encompass the entire Gulf of Mexico, so that it includes all known important breeding grounds, and the entire peak spawning season, March through May.”

Bad: A provision that would take away a set amount of the bluefin quota from fishermen using targeted methods and give it to the surface longline fleet.

McMurray says this “appears to reward the people who have the worst bycatch issues…there’s something not right about giving the people responsible for most of the dead discards a larger piece of the pie.”

Crockett calls it “a major step backward” that would “seriously undercut current efforts to promote the use of new, more selective fishing gear.”

NOAA needs to do a bit more work in order to get a rule that will really help move bluefin off the red list. The comment period ends Oct. 23 and the agency will conduct 10 hearings, including a Sept. 26th event in Portland ME.


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