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November 18, 2013

Spawning Tuna Need More Protection

Building bluefin tuna stocks need protection against wasteful practices, such as longlining. 

In the not-too-distant past, I wrote about the problem in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) concerning the protection of spawning bluefin tuna. It looks like there might be some real positive steps forward, which could have positive impacts for this upcoming spawning season. With the bluefin tuna in a depressed state, these protective changes come none too soon and are the product of effort by a diverse group of folks concerned about the future of this magnificent fish.

Here is a thumbnail sketch of the problem: In the GOM, there is a fishery that targets yellowfin tuna and swordfish with surface longlines, which can be as long as 40 miles. The baited hooks suspended off the main line catch not only the target species, but a variety of other nontarget species, one of these being bluefin tuna. The longliners do not have a quota of bluefin tuna, but they have been allowed to land three per trip, which a few years ago amounted to 111.6 metric tons of spawning fish. The vast majority of those hooked are released, but the level of mortality for the released fish is high, and a number of the fish are released dead. With a population that is approximately 70 percent reduced from its 1970 levels, we cannot afford to waste any of the spawning stock. 

Proposals Afoot

There was an experimental program that tested a weak hook for the longlines that would allow the bluefin, and also marlin — which are bigger and stronger — to break or straighten the hook. These hooks proved not to be 100 percent effective with bluefin, and they also increased the level of undersize swordfish discards.

Complete time and area closures were supported by a number of organizations that have been working to minimize this bycatch problem. They would make the most sense and would do the best job of protecting these fish. While there will likely be some closure, it might not be enough.

As this is written, NOAA Fisheries has proposed rule a for comment. By the time this is published, the rule should be in effect. The proposed rule would close those areas in the GOM known to be spawning grounds to surface longlines in April and May. Other more-selective gear would be allowed into those areas. The proposed regulation would also implement a surface longline cap for bluefin tuna on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. When  that cap is reached, the surface longline fishery closes. In order to give the longliners the quota to be counted against the cap, there is a proposed transfer of quota from all the other bluefin tuna permit categories. Also proposed is an individual vessel quota system.

Toward Wise Closures

It will be interesting to see what actually gets implemented from this proposed rule. There is a wide divergence of opinion on what should be put in place. For most who have looked seriously at this problem, the two-month closure, April and May, is not long enough. Yes, it is better than nothing, but adding a month on either side would do a much better job. Some feel that it should be for six months, from January through June. While it does impact the longline fishery, it does not stop fishing with gear that does a much better job taking only the target catch. You either protect the spawning bluefin or you do not. This type of closure would serve to encourage less-wasteful fishing methods. NOAA catch statistics indicate that the surface longline fishery in the GOM and along the Atlantic coast wastes about 25 percent of the 2012 U.S. bluefin tuna quota through discarding. Since the surface longline fishery does not have any quota at the moment, the proposed rule transfers quota from all the other permit categories to cover his new quota category. No kidding. This NOAA proposal will take quota from directed, relatively clean fishing methods and use it to reward the most wasteful fishing method. This will impact all the historical resource users. It makes little sense.

Dwindling Protection

Implementing an annual fishery cap is a good idea. Initially, these vessels were not allowed to land any bluefins. Then they got three per trip. Now, a proposed quota. The only part of this that makes sense is that once the quota is reached, the surface longline fishery closes in both the GOM and along the Atlantic coast. It also should be noted that the cap will cover those fish landed as well as the discard mortality.

There is also a proposal to bring the quota system down to the vessel level. This should make individual fishing operations more responsible for their own actions. While this is a very good idea, it has to be a part of the proposal that would move the quota away from highly targeted fisheries and not reward wasteful practices.

I look ­forward to seeing where this all comes out. It could move regulations in the right direction, but I think that wasteful fishing practices should be stopped, not rewarded.