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Bluefin Tuna: Vanishing Act

UPDATE: On September 19, 2007, the European Union closed the bluefin tuna fishery season in the eastern Atlantic, due to diminishing fish populations.

One of the ocean's biggest and most powerful fish are slowly disappearing because of commercial fishing in the areas where they reproduce.

Bluefin tuna are magnificent creatures -- so big and powerful they can swim across the ocean in a few days. They can live to be 30 years old, ten feet long, and 1500 pounds. These fish are also extremely valuable: in the Tsukiji fish market in Central Tokyo, a single giant tuna can sell for more than $100,000. The buttery flesh of the tuna (hon maguro, in Japanese) is considered a delicacy in the poshest sushi restaurants all over the globe. The explosion in the popularity of sushi worldwide, as well as deeper seas being fished, habitat loss, and illegal and unregulated fishing in Europe, has put enormous pressure on bluefin populations. The latest official statistics show that the population of western Atlantic bluefin is hovering at its lowest level in 20 years, while fishing pressure is at its highest.  Scientists are deeply concerned that this bluefin population might never recover unless fishing pressure is reduced promptly.

In the Atlantic ocean there are two major groups of bluefin tuna. Although the two groups intermingle, one spends most of its time off of Europe and spawns in the blue Mediterranean. The other spends most of its time off America's east coast and spawns in the Gulf of Mexico. 

The bluefin share their spawning grounds with other tuna and game fish -- albacore, yellowfin, mahi-mahi -- fish which are targeted by longline fishing vessels. In the Gulf of Mexico commercial longline boats set lines with hundreds of baited hooks stretching for miles. The longlines fish indiscriminately -- catching all species of fish, turtles, and even birds. During the bluefin spawning season, many bluefin are taken by the longlines.  While fishing directly for bluefin is illegal in U.S. waters, this accidental bycatch is legal to sell, and very profitable. More than $150 million worth of bluefin was landed in U.S. ports between 1995 and 2004. Meanwhile, the bluefin tuna population has plummeted.

Despite this, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has refused to close the Gulf of Mexico bluefin spawning grounds to longline fishing during the critical spawning season. The service is charged with the stewardship of our coastal waters. The federal law known as the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires NMFS to take action to prevent bycatch.

Earthjustice has filed suit on behalf of the Blue Ocean Institute and scientist Carl Safina, challenging the decision of NFMS on the grounds that the service has ignored science showing  that bluefin tuna would recover with a limited seasonal closure of the spawning grounds.

A recent scientific report has stated that if fisheries are not properly managed, including calls to better regulate longline fishing, there will be no economically viable fisheries in our oceans within 50 years. Seafood provides nearly 20% of the world's food supply. In parts of Asia, seafood provides nearly 100% of all animal protein. The stakes are too high for us to ignore this growing crisis in our seas.