NEW RULES FOR BLUEFIN

Amendment 7 could curb bluefin bycatch, but at what cost to anglers

New bluefin Tuna Regulations

Leo with a hefty bluefin. Photo by Capt. John McMurray

By now, it’s cliché to talk about how destructive and bycatch-prone surface longlines are.  But I’ll go ahead and do it anyway.  These boats put out 30 to 40 miles of baited hooks and let them soak for long periods of time.  Anything that swims by and eats one of those baits — turtles, birds, sharks, marlin, sailfish, etc. — usually perishes, and because most of it isn’t marketable or is simply off limits it gets thrown back dead.  These longlines are mostly targeting marketable yellowfin and swordfish, but believe it or not, the total “unintended” catch/bycatch of bluefin in the western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico accounts for a whopping 25 percent of the entire U.S. quota.  For lack of a better phrase, that really sucks!  What a tremendous waste of a resource.   Not just a “resource” but an amazing animal capable of growing to 1500 pounds and living to be 40 years old.  If you’ve ever hooked into one, you know the unparalleled strength, power and speed.  They are awesome fish, and well, the unintended mortality from such indiscriminate gear is infuriating.

Certainly, NOAA Fisheries understands the problem.  For the past three decades they have tried to limit the number of bluefin caught and killed by surface longlines, including a prohibition on directly targeting bluefin in the Gulf of Mexico, closing certain areas to surface longlines, and requiring the use of “weak” hooks intended to straighten out on large bluefin in the Gulf.   So far, nothing has provided an effective long-term solution.   Believe it or not, U.S. surface longlines catch more bluefin tuna in the Gulf now than they did prior to the 1982 prohibition on direct targeting.

Such longline bluefin bycatch is of particular concern in the Gulf of Mexico, the only known spawning grounds for the western Atlantic Stock.  In the spring, the region’s powerful eddies bring nutrients to the surface creating distinct hotspots for spawning giants.  The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) effectively prohibited targeting bluefin in the Gulf in 1982, and theoretically, NOAA Fisheries complied.  Yet longline vessels are still allowed to keep a certain number of bluefin incidentally taken as bycatch while targeting other species.  It’s not a terribly big number (still, keep in mind that these are all large fecund fish).  Yet, as it stands now, once the longline boats catch their allotted quota, they still keep fishing, tossing those bluefin they encounter back.  Unfortunately, there is an exceptionally high mortality rate for bluefin released from longlines in this area.  While the warm waters of the Gulf are favorable for the development of the eggs and larval stage offspring, they create physically stressful conditions for giant tunas, which have large metabolic demands and die quickly from lack of oxygen in the warm water.   So, in other words, just about every tuna caught and released on longlines in the Gulf is doomed.  And these are Earth’s largest giant bluefin.  The big breeders that produce the most offspring.  The fish we should be trying hardest to protect.

To NOAA Fisheries’ credit, they are trying to address this, among other issues, in Amendment 7 to the Consolidated Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan, a draft of which they just released a couple of weeks ago.   The initial draft is a huge step in the right direction, but there are certainly drawbacks and it can and should probably go a little further than it does.

NOAA Fisheries’ preferred alternatives do indeed stipulate a significant surface longline closure in the northwest Gulf in April and May.  For decades, angling and conservation groups have advocated for such a closure, and this is a welcome change in position by NOAA Fisheries, yet it’s probably too small and too short.  Published science shows that the eastern Gulf has a hotspot as well, and this closure completely misses it.  It has also been well documented that spawning takes place from January to June and that March is a very significant month.  At the very least, what we should be advocating is a closure of the entire Gulf in U.S. waters from March to May.  Such a closure would capture the majority of bluefin bycatch in the Gulf of Mexico, and would finally be compliant with the ICCAT probation on fishing for bluefin in the Gulf.   Right now, we are indeed fishing for bluefin in the Gulf, whether incidentally or not.

I should also note there’s a significant surface longline bycatch issue off of North Carolina.  If you read any of the print or online fishing media you likely know about the extraordinary winter bluefin fishery off of Cape Hatteras that had popped up literally overnight a little less than a decade ago.  So it’s not hard to understand that the surface longliners operating in that vicinity would be encountering those same fish.  It’s important that NOAA Fisheries addresses this, and the agency is, however it’s probably not as critical as the Gulf closure as those Gulf fish are all western Atlantic giants there to spawn.  According to some recent science (referenced in my last blog) it’s likely that around half of those fish off of North Carolina are of eastern Atlantic origin (spawning in the Mediterranean), and well, those fish are doing a litter better than our western fish that spawn in the Gulf.

Getting back on point, one of NOAA Fisheries’ preferred alternatives is to restrict surface longlines in a relatively large area off Cape Hatteras.  Under the proposed rule, surface longlines could be used from December through April in this area, but only by vessels that have proven able to use the gear without catching bluefin.   Conditional access would be granted for 143 Pelagic Longline vessels, while 18 vessels would not have access.  Doesn’t sound all that significant, but it would apparently reduce the bluefin discards in the Atlantic by 77 fish, and would reduce the bluefin discards overall by 29%.

Now, let’s get away from closed areas for a minute and talk about some other noteworthy parts of the proposed rule.  NOAA Fisheries is proposing a “catch-cap” for bluefin killed on surface longlines along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.  As mentioned, under current regulations, the longline fleet is permitted to continue fishing, thereby killing bluefin even long after its bycatch quota is met.  In other words, they keep fishing and keep catching bluefin that they dump overboard, mostly dead.  Under a catch-cap system, they would have to stop fishing entirely when that cap is reached.

One noteworthy component of this catch cap program, and one that industry seems to generally support, is an Individual Bluefin Quota (IBQ).  Each surface longline vessel would be allocated an incidental quota share (a certain poundage of fish).  Each share would represent a set percentage of the Longline category bluefin quota. Based on that percentage, the vessel would receive an annual quota allocation of bluefin. Vessels would need a minimum amount of quota allocation to depart on a fishing trip with surface longline gear, or else they couldn’t sail.  Bluefin landed as well as dead discards would count toward the IBQ.  If a vessel catches more bluefin than the amount of bluefin allocation it has, it could finish the trip and land the bluefin, but must then account for the bluefin landed by leasing it from another vessel before another trip can be made.  Under the system-wide cap, once the total quota is reached, all surface longlining would be shut down.

Both of these alternatives sound pretty darn good to me, mostly because they would shut the fishery down once the quota has been met.  That’s dramatically different than how the fishery is currently managed, allowing longliners to continue fishing/continue killing long after it has reached its quota.

They both introduce a level of responsibility at the vessel level never before seen in this fishery, and create a real economic disincentive to catch and kill bluefin on surface longlines.

Now, here’s the bad news.  NOAA Fisheries’ preferred alternative seeks to add another 7 percent to the current surface longline allocation to account for the new catch cap and/or IBQ by taking it from the angling category as well as commercial tuna fishermen who use highly selective methods of fishing.  Groups specifically fishing for bluefin, from anglers to general category fishing boats, could lose nearly 63 tons of their current quotas to create the new longline quotas.  Arguably, this appears to reward the people who have the worst bycatch issues.

I have to point out here, however, that there is some justification for this.  The current quota (the fish surface longliners are allowed to keep) was really for landings only.  If I’m understanding this correctly, what the quota increase does is reinstate an ICCAT dead discard allowance that was repealed in 2006.  Still, there’s something not right about giving the people responsible for most of the dead discards a larger piece of the pie, so personally I don’t support it.  The surface longline quota should remain at 8.1 percent (the current level) and the fishery should be shut down under the catch-cap and/or IBQ when that quota is reached.

But let’s be honest here.  Regardless of whether we have to give up quota on the angling side as well as those other less bycatch prone gear sides, the cap/IBQ system is still a pretty darn big step in the right direction, because when they reach their quota, that’s it.  They have to stop fishing.  And that likely will translate into less needlessly dead bluefin.   Equally important is that  under this system, there is very real incentive to avoid catching bluefin.  Sure, it might not be fair, but if we’re thinking about the health of the resource alone, it’s still a very good thing for bluefin.  In the end, it’s the resource that’s important, not how many fish we get to kill.

A few other things of note before wrapping up.  One is the angling category “trophy” fish (over 72”) quota.  Right now, that quota is split two-thirds for the northern region (north of Egg Harbor, NJ) and one-third for the southern.  There is no trophy quota for the Gulf which makes sense given we are not supposed to be fishing for them in the Gulf, but fishermen in the Gulf can land giants under the southern trophy quota.  NOAA Fisheries is suggesting giving some fish to the Gulf by splitting the northern, southern and Gulf trophy allocation evenly.  How they could be suggesting such a thing is beyond me, and it certainly appears to be out of compliance with the ICCAT prohibition on fishing in the Gulf.   Not to mention, it would restrict the number of trophy fish in our region to about eight fish.

New bluefin tuna regulations

Duncan Blair with a sweet bluefin! Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Also, NOAA is proposing new and improved monitoring of surface longline bycatch in the proposed rule.  There would be enhanced reporting requirements, electronic monitoring (e.g. video cameras on board), and Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) requirements among other things.  Such a measure will allow real-time monitoring of any catch-cap and/or IBQ system.  Without-a-doubt, this is a good thing.

Another thing to note is that NOAA Fisheries is proposing limited surface longline access to previously closed areas.  There’s actually a pretty large area that has been closed since 1999 to surface longlines in June off of NY and NJ. It’s currently the only closed area off our coast designed to reduce bluefin interactions.  Access to this area, among others, would be based on past vessel compliance with things such as reporting, etc.  A certain number of surface longline vessels would be allowed to fish in these areas, but would have to have an observer onboard.  Given the requirements, I don’t expect this will be all that significant, but still, probably something I wouldn’t support.  Those areas were closed for a reason, they shouldn’t be reopened.

In addition to bluefin, NOAA Fisheries also proposes to establish a North Atlantic albacore tuna quota.  A northern albacore quota is long overdue; those fish are nowhere near as abundant as they were even 10 years ago.

What the proposal doesn’t seriously address is the issue of underreporting in the angling category, and the possible overharvest of angling-category fish.  See last week’s blog (Report Your Bluefin) for more info on that.  While that subject may be an uncomfortable one for us to broach, it still needs to be addressed.

So, here’s what comes next.  NOAA Fisheries will seek public comments on the proposed rule until October 23. The agency will host a series of hearings during which the public can urge NOAA Fisheries to issue a stronger final rule.  Written comments can be sent electronically: or by fax: 978-281-9340, Attn: Tom Warren.  Or by mail: Tom Warren, Highly Migratory Species Management Division, NMFS – Northeast Regional Office 55 Great Republic Drive, Gloucester, MA 01930

NOAA Fisheries will consider comments, finalize an Environmental Impact Statement, and then publish the final rule (estimated for Spring-2014).  The effective date of most measures would be January 2015.

Like I said, there are certainly some parts of the proposed rule I don’t like, but overall I think it goes a long way to address the insidious problem of surface longline bycatch.  Can it be strengthened?  Absolutely…  But not unless anglers really make their voice heard on this one.  So, attend one of the hearings close to you, or submit comments detailing what you like about the rule and what you don’t.  And if you need help with comments or a letter, don’t be afraid to shoot me an email: john@nycflyfishing.com.

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After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

Posted in Bluefin Tuna, Conservation
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  1. […] If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may recall that I wrote about Amendment 7 back in September.   You can read that blog here: NEW RULES FOR BLUEFIN.  […]

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