Senseless Removal of Species Protections Threatens Life in the Gulf of Mexico

Sushi is almost as common a choice as any for family dinners, first dates, or even the solo diner. The industry now boasts thousands of restaurants and generates billions in revenue, but our taste for Japan’s hand-rolled sea fare poses a threat you won’t read about on a restaurant menu.

a close up view of an Atlantic bluefin tuna underwater
The Atlantic bluefin tuna is a top ocean predator that is critical for healthy marine ecosystems. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

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Fourteen years ago, attorneys at Earthjustice joined the effort to save the western Atlantic bluefin tuna, a magnificent ocean predator whose populations have been decimated by a human appetite for fish on-demand. The change they achieved with their clients and allies helped turn the tide for the species, but the bluefin tuna is back in troubled waters.

Under the Trump administration’s leadership, the National Marine Fisheries Service has reversed some of the protections Earthjustice helped design to support the bluefin tuna rebound.

To understand how reckless this is, you have to see the bigger or, rather, deeper picture.

Bluefin tuna can grow as large as 10 feet long and 2,000 pounds, while still moving through water at speeds that would get you a ticket driving in a school zone. As a top-of-the-chain species, they are a safeguard for the natural order and health of marine ecosystems. However, according to a 2016 report, overfishing in recent decades has driven an astounding 97% plunge in global Bluefin numbers and branded them at one time with the title of world’s most endangered tuna.

“People tend to recognize bluefin tuna more for their use in sushi than their value as wildlife,” says Earthjustice attorney Andrea Treece, who has spent years advocating for bluefin protections. “This has made them a highly lucrative species to catch and sell. As a result, bluefin tuna suffer unsustainable global pressure from fishing fleets.”

In 2014, realizing the larger ecological risk, the Fisheries Service responded to the urgent calls of Earthjustice and other ocean conservation groups, passing rules to protect the bluefin.

The rules placed restrictions on pelagic longline fishing in the Gulf of Mexico (the western Atlantic bluefin’s only known spawning area) during their spring migration – a true act of will, as the species can travel sometimes thousands of miles to breed in the Gulf. The Fisheries Service’s move was a recognition that allowing the bluefin to reproduce isn’t a matter of courtesy – it’s of critical importance.

Now, pelagic longlines aren’t exactly engineered for precision (think: using a wrecking ball to hammer a nail).

Fishing boats set surface lines that stretch for miles and are strung with hundreds or thousands of baited hooks to lure their target catch, like yellowfin tuna and swordfish, by the tons. With this crude and haphazard practice, bluefin tunas are snagged – and too often killed – as bycatch.

Bycatch is a problem for many species, but the bluefin’s high economic value adds another wrinkle: Because the Fisheries Service allows longline vessels to keep a limited number of “incidentally” caught bluefin (i.e. bluefin caught as bycatch), there’s extra incentive to fish in areas where vessels are more likely to catch bluefin. In fact, the Fisheries Service enacted the prohibition of pelagic longline gear in certain areas of the Gulf to end this sort of de facto, unofficial fishing for spawning bluefin.

The pelagic longline restrictions have been an undeniable success. Federal data revealed that when the restrictions were implemented in 2015, Bluefin deaths in the Gulf of Mexico dropped by 70%.

Perhaps you’re wondering: Why doesn’t the story end there? 

The Fisheries Service, now under the Trump administration’s leadership, has decided to downsize the bluefin spawning areas that were off limits to pelagic longline vessels. The agency says it’s eliminating “duplicative” regulations to ease the burden on industry, but their logic has flaws that are deeper than a bluefin’s deepest dive (about 3,000 feet, according to the World Wildlife Fund).

The Fisheries Service’s own analysis indicates that the potential economic gains are miniscule at best. Reducing bluefin protections makes even less sense if you also consider the enormity of the toll pelagic longlines have had on the species in such a short period. The scientific reality is that pulling adult bluefins out of the ocean will send the population back into decline, which will inhibit or eliminate the species’ ability to support a healthy ecosystem.

Earthjustice filed a lawsuit challenging the Fisheries Service decision to weaken bluefin tuna protections on behalf of conservation groups Healthy Gulf and Turtle Island Restoration Network.

The suit argues that removing the pelagic longline restrictions “stands in glaring contrast to the agency’s own data and experience, and violates its fundamental duties under both domestic law and international treaty obligations.” It also highlights the government’s failures assess the impacts of those rollbacks on the bluefin tuna and other protected species in the Gulf of Mexico, like leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles, oceanic whitetip sharks, and marlins.

“The administration has shown a blatant disregard for science and reason,” says Treece. “This decision shows a willingness to make nakedly political decisions that hurt ocean resources that belong to us all.”

Today we are witnessing what researchers call the sixth global extinction – a wave of species loss the Earth hasn’t seen in 65 million years.

The main difference today is us. Over the last century alone, human activities have accelerated this modern extinction at a rate 1,000 times the historical average. The implications of this crisis are manifold, and the stakes are much higher than anyone typically ponders over a sushi roll.

Unsustainable fishing practices threaten more than the bluefin tuna – the risks extend to their entire ecosystem. If ecosystems collapse, food supplies suffer. Keep connecting the dots, and you’ll see that choices like reversing bluefin protections threaten our own survival.

So what can we do to help the bluefin tuna?

Treece suggests we start by not eating them. If we do choose to eat other tuna or swordfish, we can learn more about sustainable seafood using tools like Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector

To support a more permanent solution, Treece says we can urge the Fisheries Service to restrict the use of pelagic longlines and other high-bycatch equipment, as well as limit the fishing of top predators like the bluefin so they can continue to keep our oceans healthy.

The Trump administration may view marine life as inventory for a global kitchen, but a 2019 poll revealed that 95% of Americans support the creation and enforcement of stronger marine protection areas. On some level, we all know we’re keepers of this world. For now, we still have time to embrace the responsibility.

Jaida Nabayan was an intern for Earthjustice’s editorial team in 2020.

Maz worked at Earthjustice from 2020–2021.

Earthjustice’s Oceans Program uses the power of the law to safeguard imperiled marine life, reform fisheries management, stop the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling, and increase the resiliency of ocean ecosystems to climate change.