Overfishing in Gulf of Mexico Quickly Destroying Bluefin Tuna Populations

Activists file suit against NMFS to enforce prohibitions against illegal longline fishing


 Steve Roady / Jennifer Chavez, Earthjustice (202) 667-4500

Earthjustice, on behalf of Blue Ocean Institute and author and scientist Carl Safina, filed late yesterday a lawsuit challenging the failure of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to limit longline fishing in the Gulf of Mexico that is decimating bluefin tuna populations. The organizations are calling for NMFS to close longline fishing in bluefin spawning areas in the Gulf during bluefin spawning season. The environmental groups filed their case in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Read the complaint.

Bluefin tuna are a unique species of tuna, growing on average up to ten feet in length and weighing over 1,500 pounds. They can travel great distances, sometimes crossing the Atlantic Ocean in just over a month; they also can dive up to 3,000 feet in a matter of minutes, and swim at speeds comparable to some racehorses. While the bluefin tuna is a delicacy in certain parts of the world — in Japan, some bluefin tuna can fetch up to $40,000 for a single fish — they are not the same tuna canned and sold in many grocery stores.

“For 25 years, people have been trying hard to get NMFS to turn this nosedive around. NMFS should do what the law requires before the bluefin tuna population crashes and burns,” said Carl Safina, president of Blue Ocean Institute.

“This is a charismatic fish species, a major predator that plays a crucial role in the web of oceanic life — but its population is at a dangerously low level,” said Earthjustice attorney Steve Roady. “Bluefin populations have been steadily declining for the last 20 years. The Fisheries Service has a responsibility to follow the law, recognize the important scientific discoveries that show the bluefin spawns during certain times and places when longline fishing is killing off huge numbers of fish, and protect the spawning bluefin.”

NMFS is responsible for stewardship of our oceans, using science-based conservation and management for the promotion of healthy ecosystems. But the agency is allowing longline fishing in the Gulf of Mexico — a commercial fishing technique that uses hundreds or even thousands of hooks strung for miles along lines behind fishing vessels — during peak bluefin spawning season.  As a result, bluefin tuna are illegally and needlessly decimated by longline vessels that are supposed to be targeting other species. Federal laws such as the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, or MSA, require NMFS to take action to prevent bycatch kills such as those killing bluefin tuna populations. Under the MSA, the Fisheries Service officially identified bluefin tuna as “overfished” on Sept. 30, 1997.

“The law and the science are very clear in this instance, yet the Fisheries Service has continually failed to implement management changes that would stop illegal bycatch and help the western Atlantic bluefin population recover,” said Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Chavez. “Scientific evidence has shown these fish are present between January and June in the Gulf of Mexico and are spawning there. But NMFS has ignored studies that demonstrate that a limited seasonal closure in the Gulf would produce benefits, not only for bluefin but also for other species including endangered leatherback turtles.”

Scientists published an article in Nature magazine in 2005 that tracked bluefin schools as they traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, demonstrating that the fish spawned in the Gulf of Mexico and moved up along the east coast and even as far as the Mediterranean Sea. Research by scientists around the world has done much over the years to aid a better understanding of the bluefin habits, but its most recent assessment show bluefin population estimates at their lowest ever, while fishing pressure is at its highest.  Anecdotal reports from Atlantic fishers confirm what the scientific reports show — the overfished Atlantic bluefin populations continue to decline. 

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