Oceana and five other groups today asked Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez to ban commercial longline fishing fleets during three critical months each year from the Gulf of Mexico spawning grounds of the severely depleted and highly prized western Atlantic bluefin tuna. The groups want an area of about 125,000 square miles of the northern Gulf closed to pelagic longline fishing boats during the spawning season -- which happens every year in April, May and June -- in order to give the giant bluefin tuna a chance to reproduce. This is the first step to rebuilding a fish population that has plummeted by more than 80 percent in the last three decades.
"We need fast, decisive action to keep bluefin tuna from going the way of the buffalo," said Dr. Michael Hirshfield, Oceana's chief scientist and vice president for North America. "The first thing we need to do is protect the bluefin's spawning grounds, remove the gantlet of thousands of hooks they have to swim through, and give this magnificent and massive animal a chance to reproduce. That's what this petition is all about."
Oceana and Earthjustice filed the petition on behalf of the Blue Ocean Institute, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Coalition for Marine Conservation. Bluefin tuna was a favorite of author Ernest Hemingway, who wrote admiringly of this powerful sportfish after he saw his first one off the port of Vigo, Spain in 1921.
"Bluefin tuna are superlative fish, unsurpassed in size, beauty, and power," said Oceana senior attorney Eric Bilsky. "Fishermen all over the world seek this charismatic creature. If we don't take action now to protect the bluefin, we'll be left with nothing tomorrow but faded photographs to remember them by."
The action was based on the findings of a groundbreaking study, published in the April 28 issue of the journal Nature by lead scientist Barbara A. Block, which established the importance of the Gulf of Mexico spawning area. In Block's study, researchers electronically tagged 772 Atlantic bluefin tuna in the western Atlantic Ocean between 1996 and 2004, enabling them to identify the specific areas in the Gulf where the bluefin tuna spawn.
"The data . . . demonstrate that immediate action by the Secretary to prohibit pelagic longline fishing in the Gulf of Mexico spawning area during the months of April-June, the bluefin spawning period, should reduce mortalities of reproductive adult bluefin tuna, reduce further overfishing, and promote the rebuilding of the overexploited western Atlantic bluefin tuna population," the petition says.
Bluefin tuna's buttery belly meat, called toro, is so prized that sushi aficionados are willing to pay up to $75 a serving. Tokyo fish dealers can get between $50 and $110 a pound, for a fish that can weigh between 400 and 1,400 pounds. The tremendous demand from the Japanese market has led to widespread and severe overfishing.
The U.S. government still allows fishing in bluefin tuna spawning areas, despite scientific evidence showing bluefin's continued decline and international agreements to help protect it. The United States is party to an agreement forged at the International Commission for the Conservation of the Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) to avoid fishing for bluefin tuna in the spawning areas in the Gulf of Mexico.
According to recent scientific reports, bluefin tuna populations remain at record lows, despite plans put in place to rebuild the population. The petition notes that while bluefin populations plummet, the mortality rates by fishing remain high.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in a report dated June 2004, noted that from 1995 to 2002, a total of 10,498 bluefin tuna were caught by U.S. Atlantic pelagic longline fishing boats; of those, 8,832 bluefins were discarded, meaning they were thrown back into the ocean; and of the discards, up until 1999, 80 percent were already dead.
Bluefin tuna is one of the most highly evolved animals in the world and its specialized muscles, circulation, and external design give it immense strength and stamina. Unlike most fish, bluefin tuna are warm blooded and have an efficient heating and cooling system that provide them with superior vision and response and allows them to swim in cold or warm waters in astonishing speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. Adult fish live up to 40 years and reach more than 15 feet in length.