Help End the Bluefin Blues

Proposed fishing regulations could help this threatened tuna, but advocates say they’re not enough.

The best one-word description of the bluefin tuna is “superfish.” Unlike most fish, it is warm-blooded. Paired arteries and veins with opposite directions of flow act as heat exchangers, limiting heat loss. Instead of pumping water through its gills as most fish do, it reverses the process, pushing its immense gills through water, double-hinged mouth agape, supercharging itself with oxygen like a ramjet. Its fins fold into grooves. Its tail is equipped with horizontal stabilizers. These adaptations allow it to hit bursts of 55 mph.

And it offers arguably the best eating of all fish—nothing like the dry, white “tuna” (usually albacore) that comes in cans. Bluefin is prized for sushi and sashimi, and a single midsize bluefin of about 500 pounds can sell for several hundred thousand dollars. So the species is in desperate trouble.

If one were to design a prescription for commercial extinction of the western bluefin population, it would be this: Kill spawning adults in their only known spawning habitat, the Gulf of Mexico.

Yet this is precisely what America does. In 1981 the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) banned directed longline fishing for bluefins. But it still permits longliners, who festoon the Gulf with thousands of miles of line that dangle millions of baited hooks, to kill bluefins by accident as they target abundant yellowfin tuna. In fact, U.S. longliners now kill more bluefins by accident than they killed on purpose before 1981.

To discourage a directed fishery, the NMFS requires most of this bluefin “bycatch”—usually brought to the boat dead—to be discarded. But each longliner may keep and sell up to three bluefins per trip. So there’s no motivation to limit kill.

Last August the NMFS proposed a partial and belated fix—prohibiting surface longlining in a small section of the Gulf during April and May (only part of bluefin spawning season) and requiring that bycatch be retained. In the prohibited area longliners could switch to a highly efficient and selective method of yellowfin fishing called “greensticking,” in which multiple squid lures are trolled. In a one-year, four-vessel trial, greensticks caught no bluefins.

And bluefin bycatch would be capped, requiring a longliner who went over his quota to quit fishing or “lease” unused quota from another longliner. Detailed logs of all catches would be mandatory, verified by onboard video cameras automatically turned on when longlines are pulled.

“The proposal is a step in the right direction, but the gear-restricted area needs to be for the whole Gulf and include March,” says Tom Wheatley, who manages the Gulf Surface Longline Campaign for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Agreeing with Wheatley on the need for a larger, longer Gulf closure are Ken Hinman of Wild Oceans; Carl Safina of the Blue Ocean Institute; and Captain John McMurray, one of America’s most respected bluefin fishing guides. And all deplore the part of the proposal that takes bycatch quota from anglers, purse seiners, and harpooners and gives it to longliners.

“The draft rule,” observes Hinman, “seems designed to accommodate and institutionalize bluefin bycatch rather than eliminate it.”

“The idea is supposedly to limit longliners’ bluefin bycatch,” Safina says. “And yet NMFS wants to give them more. The logic eludes me.”

No one stands to lose more than McMurray if the game of musical chairs with quotas is implemented. Still, he acknowledges that, even as written, the draft rule provides “incentive to avoid catching bluefins.”

The NMFS is accepting public comments until December 10. Urge it to prohibit surface longlining throughout the entire Gulf from March through May and transfer no bluefin quota from other fisheries.

Comments can be registered electronically, by fax (978-281-9340, Attn: Tom Warren), or by regular mail (Tom Warren, Highly Migratory Species Management Division, NMFS, Northeast Regional Office, 55 Great Republic Drive, Gloucester, MA 01930).