On Bluefin, Let’s Take The Best We Can Get

NMFS “preferred alternatives” to address longline bycatch, while not perfect, are actually pretty good for bluefin

Bluefin Tuna Regulation Changes

Capt. John McMurray with a nice bluefin

So I’m reading another press release about how anglers are getting screwed on bluefin with HMS Amendment 7 (which seeks to address bluefin bycatch in the pelagic longline fishery), and feel compelled to respond, or at least set the record straight.  Sure, there are a few things I’d like to see happen with this amendment that likely won’t, but if you are at all concerned about bluefin stocks, or rather bluefin abundance, and about remedying a longtime problem, rather than how many fish you might be allowed to kill, well than the Fisheries Service “preferred alternatives” aren’t so bad.  In fact given the Service’s failure to effectively address bluefin bycatch in the pelagic longline fishery up to now, they are pretty damn good.

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

The bottom line is that NMFS is finally initiating real measures to address what has been a glaring problem for the last three decades.  As far as anglers are concerned, the real point of contention with Amendment 7 is preferred alternative A2a, which would take 62.5 metric tons of from the purse seine, general, harpoon, trap and yes angling category and give it to the longliners.

I’m not going to argue that this doesn’t suck.  My initial reaction is that this punishes all those other categories that don’t have monumental discard problems (although one could certainly argue that there is a discard mortality issue with the angling category, but I won’t go there), and rewards the category that does by awarding it more quota.  That certainly doesn’t seem fair.  But there is some legitimate justification.

First off, what seems to be the primary intent of Amendment 7 is accountability in the pelagic longline fishery.  What NMFS is proposing is making it illegal for longliners to discard dead bluefin, and setting an overall cap on bluefin harvest in the pelagic longline fishery.  Once a certain number of fish are caught, the entire fishery shuts down.  In other words, the pelagic longline fleet can no longer sail if the fleet meets or goes over its quota.   That is hugely significant, because the way it works now is that once their quota (currently 8.1% of the total bluefin quota) is reached, they may still fish, and throw back incidentally caught bluefin, most of which are of course dead.  What ends up happening, when you account for those dead discards that happen after the quota has been met, is that the longline fleet ends up killing somewhere around 35% of the US quota.  As you may have already deduced, having an overall cap that triggers a closure institutes industry-wide accountability and of course incentive to avoid catching bluefin… or in other words fishing in areas where they are less likely to encounter bluefin.  That should result in far fewer dead bluefin than we are seeing now.

Bluefin Tuna Regulations Changes

Capt. John McMurray with a flyrod caught bluefin

The preferred alternatives in Amendment 7 go even further by proposing an individual quota system (Individual Bluefin Quota: IBQ).  This would mean each pelagic longliner would have a certain number of fish they could catch and kill (remember that it would be illegal to discard).  If they meet or exceed that number of fish, they could not sail again, unless they were to lease quota from another vessel (or from the purse seine category) and that of course would come out of the total cap/quota that would shut the entire fleet down should it be exceeded.  Following me?  Again, the point is that longliners will have real accountability, both fleet-wide and individually, and subsequently real incentive to avoid bluefin.  That is indeed a good thing

Now, let’s get back to the quota allocations.  Under such a catch-cap system, it would be difficult for some longline vessels  to survive under the current 8.1% bluefin allocation.  That quota could be met right quick, and the fleet would be shut down in short order.  I can imagine that some readers of this blog are saying “so?”, and honestly, that was my first reaction.  But the reality of the situation is that, whether we like it or not, longliners are often critical parts of coastal fishing communities.  Yeah, many use large-scale, non-selective gear, which kills birds and turtles, and of course a host of unintended fish species (especially bluefin), but they certainly aren’t gonna just stay tied to the dock.  I don’t know the numbers offhand, but they supply most of the market swordfish, yellowfin, mahi, wahoo etc.  Furthermore, the reality is that the initial 8.1% allocation was meant purely for landings only, not discards.  And if I’m understanding this correctly, what the proposed longline category increase does is comply with a fairly recent ICCAT mandate that bluefin discards come off of each country’s overall quota.  It simply reinstates an ICCAT dead-discard allowance that was repealed in 2006 (yes, this is a little confusing but it does make sense).

Now…  There are indeed ways to give pelagic longliners more quota so that the cap and IBQ systems actually work, without stealing it from the other categories.  NMFS could completely shut down all of the Western Atlantic bluefin spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico to pelagic longliners, during all those months bluefin have been proven to engage in spawning activity.  Back in 1982 ICCAT prohibited targeting bluefin in the Gulf, yet we’ve been giving longliners in the Gulf a “bycatch-allowance” for decades.  Certainly, that’s not technically “targeting” bluefin, but with any bycatch allowance, there’s usually a resultant directed fishery if it’s legal to keep them.  If we were to truly comply with the intent of this mandate, we’d just shut the whole spawning area down to longlining when the fish are there spawning.  Keep in mind that these are the large (read “giant”) fecund Western Atlantic fish… the ones we should really be trying to protect.

Yes, the preferred alternative in Amendment 7 does indeed stipulate a significant longline closure in the northwest Gulf in April and May.  But it’s been pretty well documented that spawning occurs from Jan to June and in the Eastern Gulf as well.  Really, there should be a closure in all of the spawning area, at the very least from March to May.  That sort of 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.

The real point here, however, is that such a time and area closure would result in a significant quota savings that could be given to pelagic longliners fishing in the Atlantic, rather than taking it from anglers, harpooners etc.  According to pelagic longliner log books in which bycatch estimates are derived, this option would theoretically protect an additional 38.5 mt of bluefin tuna. Given that enhanced observer coverage in the Gulf has shown higher interactions with bluefin tuna than reported via logbooks (one estimate shows that the actual mortality is closer to 100mt), it’s not unreasonable to speculate that such a time and area closure mortality could actually result in a much higher tonnage savings.  And the conservation benefit of protecting those large Western Atlantic fish during the spawn are self-evident.

Regardless, I’d be surprised if NMFS agreed to close any more of the Gulf than the aforementioned area specified in their preferred alternative.  The decision to only close part of the spawning grounds and only during those two months was based on lessening the economic impact a spawning closure would have on the pelagic longline fleet.  But I’m kinda getting off point here.

The point of this blog is that despite the fact that we’re all kinda bitching about it, the preferred alternatives in Amendment 7 do a pretty good job of addressing the chronic pelagic long line bycatch of bluefin tuna.  The spawning time and area closure in the Gulf, which IMHO doesn’t go far enough, is still quite significant.  The conservation and angling community have been pushing NMFS for such a closure for at least a decade.  I’m pretty stoked that they might actually do it, as soon as 2015.  And the catch-cap and IBQ system offer some very real accountability and incentive to avoid bluefin.  Incidentally, there are some other very useful preferred alternatives in Amendment, particularly the ones that deal with increased and better monitoring of the fleet (I really like the remote “video monitoring” alternatives).  This sort of thing will give us a real picture of what exactly is going on out there so we can address it, and of course keep the industry honest.

If you are still one of the people who think this is simply a giveaway to an industry responsible for a shit-ton of bycatch mortality in the bluefin fishery, then you are sadly mistaken.   I urge you to ask any longliner what they think of the preferred alternatives in Amendment 7.  The Blue Water Fishermen’s Association, an association of pelagic longliners has been vocal about its opposition.   This is no cake walk for them.  Pelagic longliners are facing real in-season shutdowns if they can’t stay away from bluefin.

So in short, yes, the end result may be that anglers might have to kill a few fewer fish than in years past, at least in the short term.  But the end result will be more bluefin tuna in the water, rather than sinking to the bottom of ocean after they’ve been unceremoniously ripped off a longline hook.  If you are one of those people that is simply concerned with how much meat you can bring home next summer and to hell with the future, well then yeah, I can see why you probably wouldn’t like what this Amendment is proposing.  But if you are concerned with health of the bluefin stock, or simply ensuring that there are enough fish in the water so that you can go out and actually get a shot at them without having to run 80-miles to reach them, then it’s a pretty good deal for you, for all of us, and of course for the bluefin.


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.

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  1. […] likely won’t, but if you are at all concerned about bluefin stocks, or rather bluefin abundance, Read more@reeltime.com  […]

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