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Oceans Update: Earthjustice Seeks Protections for Gulf Tuna, Red Snapper

Earthjustice is ramping up efforts to protect our oceans and their inhabitants. The Washington DC office is now engaged in two separate ocean conservation efforts involving the conservation of fish species in the Gulf of Mexico. These efforts follow in the tradition of past Earthjustice litigation to protect ocean wildlife, including Puget Sound orcas; false killer whales near Hawaii; and seabirds snagged by fishhooks.

Red Snapper

On behalf of the Gulf Restoration Network, Earthjustice's DC office is challenging the government's failure to halt the chronic overfishing of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, and to rebuild this overfished population. For more than 15 years, red snapper in the Gulf has continued to be depleted, yet the government has yet to implement a plan for recovery. 

Halting overfishing and rebuilding the red snapper population requires the government to reduce the number of fish killed each year in the Gulf. Most of the red snapper killed are not brought to the dinner table. Instead, the bulk of the losses come from young fish killed when caught accidentally in shrimp trawls, or fish that are discarded and die after being caught in the directed red snapper fishery. After failing for years to address either of these problems, the government finally produced a plan in June 2005 aimed at halting overfishing.

But the government's plan totally ignores vital facts. With respect to red snapper killed in shrimp trawls, the latest government plan assumes that certain devices incorporated into the trawl nets will reduce mortality by roughly 40%. In fact, studies have shown that these devices (so called "bycatch reduction devices") are less than 12% effective. With respect to red snapper that die when discarded, the latest government plan assumes that roughly 30% of discards die when returned to the water. In fact, scientific studies show that the mortality rate for red snapper discards is closer to 75%. 

Earthjustice has filed suit challenging the government plan and pointed out that it is based on demonstrably incorrect assumptions. We are asking the federal court in Houston to send the rule back for prompt and accurate revisions. The case is fully briefed and a decision is expected later this year. For more information, read our press release.

Bluefin Tuna

In June 2005, Earthjustice filed a petition on behalf of several environmental groups seeking an emergency closure of longlining in the Gulf of Mexico during the months of January through June in order to protect spawning bluefin tuna. This closure is urgently needed: the population of western Atlantic bluefin tuna is at its lowest point ever, while fishing pressure is at its greatest point ever. Leading scientists are concerned that the bluefin could be headed for commercial extinction. 

The National Marine Fisheries Service declined to grant our petition. Instead, it folded our petition into a larger rulemaking proceeding examining regulations for all "highly migratory species" (tunas, marlins, and swordfish). A recently-published draft of that rule, now open for public comment, does not agree to close longlining in the Gulf.

As it has for years in the red snapper case, the government is ignoring vital facts about the western Atlantic bluefin tuna. First, the government is assuming that these tuna spawn first at the age of eight years; the scientific evidence shows the mean spawning age is actually 12. Second, the government assumes that there is no mixing of eastern Atlantic bluefin (from the Mediterranean Sea) with the western Atlantic tuna from the Gulf; yet the evidence shows that as much as 1/3 of the tuna found off the coast of the United States is from the Mediterranean. These two assumptions, both of which ignore existing science, are the foundation of the government's conclusion that there is no need to close any part of the Gulf of Mexico to longliners during the months of January through June.

The rule is expected to be made final within the next two months. Earthjustice is preparing comments that criticize the rule and its faulty assumptions, and are discussing next steps with our clients.