Bluefin Tuna Catch a Break

bluefin-tuna-mamThere’s no question that bluefin rank among my favorite gamefish.  I caught my first nearly forty years ago.  Ever since, I’ve been entranced by their size and their strength, and extremely pleased by the fact that they frequently pass through my home waters south of Fire Island, New York.

Over the years, I’ve caught my share; in the days when I ran tournament boats, I put my anglers on bluefin that put them, in turn, atop events’ leader boards.

But I stopped fishing for them a few years ago.

It just felt like the right thing to do.  The population was heading downhill too quickly, and I’d been fishing too long to tell myself otherwise.

I could recall the days out of Pt. Judith, Rhode Island when bluefin the size of small cars crashed bait on the surface and left 50 square yards of fpam in their wake.

I could remember my first time in a fighting chair, looking over the top of the Penn 16/0, when the captain checked the fit of my harness by hanging onto the tip of the rod and lifting his feet off the deck.

And so, some years later, when I looked out across my angry green ocean, where the big fish now seldom swam, I knew just how much we had lost.

For a while, I hung on to fishing for bluefin, replacing the old gaff-and-gut days with nothing but catch and release.  That worked for a while, but back in ’06, a fish came up behind a Green Machine bar and took the trailer all the way down.

Letting it go was out of the question; the blood flowed red from its gills.  It was of legal size, and wouldn’t be wasted, but something still felt much too wrong.

Logically, I knew that killing just one school bluefin every few years would have no impact at all on the stock; the fish would go on—or not—regardless of what I might do.  But as I tore the gills of the dying tuna, as its blood flowed over my wrists and stained the sleeves of my shirt, as its heart beat in its last fading pulses, spilling what remained of its life onto the ice in the fishbox, I felt the need to make an ethical call.

For now, this would be my last bluefin.  Until fisheries managers finally did the right thing, and took real action to preserve and rebuild the small, fragile western stock, I’d leave them alone.

Now, for the first time, I’m happy to write words of hope.

Last week, after more than two years of draft amendments, public comment, deliberation, debate and delay, the National Marine Fisheries Service finally issued Final Amendment 7 to the 2006 Consolidated Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan.

It was worth waiting for.

Biologists break the Atlantic bluefin tuna population into two separate stocks.  One, the eastern stock, spawns in the Mediterranean Sea.  The other, western stock spawns in the Gulf of Mexico.  Biologists can tell them apart by measuring the amount of one oxygen isotope—oxygen 16—present in each tuna’s otoliths (“ear bones” found in the fish’s head).

It turns out that the two stocks never mix on the spawning grounds, but frequently cross the ocean and share common feeding areas.  When both stocks are at the same level of health, the eastern stock is roughly ten times the size of the western stock, and tagging studies suggest that perhaps 10% of the eastern stock crosses over to North American shores.   Thus, at any given time, at least half of the bluefin caught by American fishermen may have been spawned in the Mediterranean.

Western stock fish are hit hard when they cross over to Europe.  Eastern fish begin spawning at around 50 pounds, while western bluefin don’t reach maturity until over 200—perhaps close to 300—pounds.  Thus European commercial fishermen freely harvest juvenile western stock fish that are off-limits to the commercial fishery off North America.

However, western stock bluefin are also hit hard over here.  There is a substantial, and arguably sustainable, directed fishery.  However, about 68 metric tons of western stock bluefin are also taken as bycatch, and discarded dead, in the American pelagic longline fishery.

On the spawning grounds of the Gulf of Mexico, far too many big bluefin have been killed by longliners seeking other pelagic species.  In the warm waters of the Gulf, successfully releasing such bluefin alive is close to impossible.

And that’s where Amendment 7 comes in.

Pursuant to that new regulation, which was widely and actively supported by both the marine conservation community and some angling groups, NMFS has created large gear restricted areas, where pelagic longlining will be prohibited during the two months when spawning bluefin are most likely to be in such places.

The news gets even better, because the gear-restricted areas are about 30% larger than originally proposed, and include an area in the eastern Gulf that, in the beginning, seemed unlikely to be created.

And, because the only bluefin that manage to spawn are those that survive through the rest of the year, NMFS also maintained all existing seasonal closures in areas where longline bycatch of bluefin is notably high, and created a new gear restricted area off North Carolina.  The North Carolina area closure is only partial, as vessels that haven’t had much bluefin bycatch will be allowed in.  It is also a little smaller than hoped.  However, it includes most of the “hot spots” east of Cape Hatteras, and will prevent a lot of big tuna from being incidentally killed.

Longliners are also being made more accountable for their catch.

New rules, supported by real-time electronic monitoring of the decks of longline vessels, will require longliners to report all bluefin as they are landed and retain all legal-sized bluefin that are dead when brought to the boat.  Each boat will be assigned an individual bluefin quota, and when that quota is filled, the boat’s longline season will end.  In addition, the longline season for all boats will end when the Longline Category’s overall bluefin quota is landed.

Those provisions should go a long way toward helping the western stock bluefin.  But that doesn’t mean that Amendment 7 is completely wart-free.

Its biggest flaw is that it gives undue protection to the pelagic longline fishery by transferring quota from the Purse Seine Category, which normally underfishes its quota, into a reserve that can be used to cover excessive bycatch.

Rewarding a dirty fishery with extra quota to cover its bycatch is bad fisheries policy, and sets an undesirable precedent.

But overall, Amendment 7 serves the bluefin tuna well.

And that’s a good thing.

Because if the fish respond to Amendment 7 they way that I hope that they will, in a couple of years, I may well go out and bother them again.  I still have some bluefin tags on the boat, and it would be nice to be able to use them.

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Charles Witek grew up in coastal Connecticut, fishing for Long Island Sound’s then-abundant bottom fish before graduating to weakfish, bluefish and striped bass. He was already in his early twenties, and an avid striped bass angler, when the stock began to collapse. It was then that he had a chance meeting with Bob Pond, creator of the Atom plug, who was an early advocate for striped bass conservation. Pond’s efforts touched a chord and Witek, too, took up the striper’s cause. Over the years, he became more involved in conservation issues, serving as a bluefin tuna technical advisor to the US ICCAT delegation and holding a seat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. He is currently a member of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council and a sits on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Winter Flounder Advisory Panel. He is also a Vice President of the New York State Outdoor Writers’ Association. Witek currently resides, with his wife Theresa, on New York’s Long Island, where he fishes for everything from back-bay weakfish to canyon tunas from his 31’ Ocean Master, Arion.

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