The National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed new measures to protect one of the ocean’s most threatened species of fish, the Atlantic bluefin tuna, from one of the most lethally indiscriminate types of fishing gear, the pelagic longline. Longliners fishing for swordfish and yellowfin tuna typically hang hundreds of hooks from a 30-plus mile mainline, resulting in large amounts of incidental catch, or bycatch, of non-target species.
Amendment 7 to the Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan, out in draft form, is a good step forward, but it needs to go farther to reduce bycatch of bluefin and other vulnerable species. The public has until January 10th to provide support for the amendment and, most importantly, to back alternatives to strengthen it.
NMFS proposes closing two new areas to pelagic longlining: a five-month (December-April) closure off the North Carolina coast, and a small area of the northern Gulf of Mexico for two months (April-May) during spawning season. A cap would be placed on the total number of bluefin the longline fishery can take in a single year, with individual bycatch quotas (IBQs) allotted to permitted vessels. A vessel stops longlining when its cap is reached; the entire fleet stops fishing when the overall quota is filled.
Wild Oceans has long advocated for closing the bluefin’s Gulf of Mexico breeding grounds to longlining, and we were among the first to promote a strict cap-and-close policy on bycatch in the longline fishery. Both measures can help restore depleted numbers of bluefin tuna as well as other threatened species, such as blue marlin, oceanic sharks and endangered sea turtles, while serving as incentives for commercial fishermen to move from destructive longlining to safer alternative fishing methods.
The measures preferred by NMFS, however, fall short of these objectives. They are mostly successful in turning high levels of dead discards into regulated landings and keeping the United States within its internationally-set quota. Positive goals, for sure. But in achieving the important goals of lowering mortality on the severely depressed bluefin’s spawning stock, minimizing bycatch of other species, and providing stronger incentives to switch gears, greenstick- gear for yellowfin tuna and buoy-gear for swordfish, not so much.
The closure in the Gulf of Mexico is badly needed but it’s too small and too short. The much larger Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HPAC), designated by NMFS in 2008 in response to a Wild Oceans petition, includes the entire Gulf spawning grounds in U.S. waters. Breeding in the Gulf occurs throughout the spring. The overall limit on longline bycatch is set too high, nearly twice the longline category’s current allocation of 8% of the U.S. quota. Moreover, the allocation of highly-valuable bluefin to individual longline permit holders (a type of catch share) could institutionalize the bycatch, creating additional pressure to keep overall bluefin quotas high and a disincentive for fishermen to switch to cleaner gears since they’d lose their bluefin share.
Wild Oceans supporters should contact the National Marine Fisheries Service and tell the agency to strengthen Amendment 7 by expanding the Gulf of Mexico closed area and capping the bluefin bycatch significantly below recent levels. Follow this link to our Action Alert.
Read our Wild Oceans issue paper on Best Fishing Practices for Bluewater Fisheries.