Switching Gears to Save Bluefin Tuna

Switching Gears to Save Bluefin Tuna

School of bluefin. Photo credit: NOAA.

After years of organizing on the part of GRN and our many partners working to protect western Atlantic bluefin tuna, we achieved a major victory in December 2014 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) announced new protections for bluefin in the Gulf and beyond.

The Gulf of Mexico is the only known breeding ground for western Atlantic bluefin tuna, and even before the BP drilling disaster, bluefin and other species were under significant threat from surface longline fishing gear, which consists of hundreds of baited hooks suspended from lines that stretch an average of 30 miles. 

These protections are a step in the right direction for the Gulf ecosystem, half the win/win we have focused on for a sustainble fishery. We continue working to ensure that Gulf fishermen have the resources they need to transition to more sustainable gear. Read more about bluefin tuna, longline fishing, and NOAA’s new protections below. 

A decades-old problem

The bluefin tuna is a blue and silvery fish that can grow longer than 6 feet and can weigh over 550 lbs. The bluefin tuna is an active migratory swimmer that often swims across the Atlantic at depths of 500 to 1000 meters.

Unfortunately, due to high demand for bluefin tuna, its population has dramatically declined. We have lost 64% of the 1970 population estimate.

One of the main and most preventable reasons the bluefin tuna’s numbers have crashed is due to surface longlines. Surface longlines have been used commercially in the Gulf since the 1960s, and fishermen use this method to catch yellowfin tuna and swordfish. 

Average size of a bluefin tuna. Photo by NOAA.

A surface longline with its hundreds of hooks that 
indiscriminately catch marine life in the Gulf.

An additional threat

In 2010, the worst offshore oil disaster in U.S. history exacerbated the negative environmental impacts of surface longlines. The oil polluted the western Atlantic bluefin tuna’s only known breeding ground and lasted through the peak of its spawning season. Millions of gallons of oil were released within a matter of months and record amounts of dispersants were used to break down the oil. The dispersants are also a threat to the bluefin population because it can affect the development of bluefin larvae. 

Though current results remain  inconclusive and scientists will continue studying the disaster’s impacts for years to come, it’s clear that minimizing controllable threats to these animals will strengthen their chance for survival.

A solution

In response to science about the impacts of longline fishing and public outcry, NOAA has enacted new rules to help protect bluefin. Among other stipulations, NOAA’s rule:

  • Closes a portion of the Gulf of Mexico—the only known spawning ground for the western Atlantic population—to surface longline fishing for the months of April and May. Only alternative, highly selective fishing gears would be allowed in those waters.
  • Implements an annual cap for bluefin killed on surface longlines along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
  • Establishes an associated Individual Bluefin Quota system that introduces a level of responsibility at the vessel level never before seen in this fishery and creates a real economic disincentive to catch and kill bluefin on surface longlines.
  • Includes dead and discarded bluefin in the longline quota and reduces the overall impact of longlining on bluefin tuna.
  • Implements 100% coverage of the longline fleet by electronic monitoring.

These new protections are a great step forward, but are only one half of the win/win that we’ve been working towards in our Switching Gears to Save Bluefin Tuna Campaign: the second half is funding to help fishermen transition to more sustainable fishing gear. BP oil disaster restoration funds could help pay to transition surface longline fishermen to more selective fishing gear that would protect spawning bluefin and other ocean wildlife, while keeping fishermen in business. As we celebrate this victory, we will keep working to make sure fishermen get the gear transition funding they so need. $20 million has been included in Phase IV of theBP Disaster Natural Resource Damage Assessment Early Restoration funding for gear transition. We are working with the fishermen on the specifics for this second half of the win/win for the fishery.