Bluefin tuna getting much-needed help

With their population at an all-time low, bluefin tuna are looking for friends in high places. And they may have found one on Wednesday of last week. “We know the tuna needs some help,” said Bill Hogarth, director of the US National Marine Fisheries Service. “It’s quite a fish, with a lot of history.”

Hogarth had just received a petition from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and four other organizations interested in ocean conservation asking for a ban on all longline fishing when and where western bluefin tuna spawn.

The request grew out of a recent study showing that, under current rules, many bluefins are caught and killed accidentally while they are spawning.

That spells big trouble for the big fish. Their population has already fallen by more than 80 percent since 1970, said Eric Bilsky, senior attorney for Oceana, one of the petitioners. The proposed ban would last about three months, from April through June, and cover about 125,000 square miles of the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Although Hogarth couldn’t say yet how the Fisheries Service would respond to the petition – “They just handed it to me today at lunch” – he said that his agency has been looking at the same data published in the study.

And he’s a fan of its lead author, Barbara Block, Prothro professor of marine sciences at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. “She’s a real go-getter as a scientist,” he said and called her work “good science.”

The Fisheries Service that Hogarth heads is the agency responsible for rules regulating tuna fishing. As the rules now stand, no intentional longline fishing for bluefins is ever allowed in the gulf. But it is legal to fish for yellowfins with longlines — fishing lines that stretch many miles and are baited with hundreds of hooks. And, of course, the lines are colour-blind, so bluefins are often caught accidentally.

Fishermen are supposed to release nearly all of these, but some question whether this always happens. “There are no observers on the longline boats,” said Charles Farwell, curator of pelagic fish research at the aquarium. “We have to rely on the boat captain and his logbook, and he’s not going to implicate himself in doing anything wrong.”

Even if everyone’s behaviour is completely aboveboard, Block’s study showed that when bluefins are accidentally caught, many, probably most, either die before they can be released or die soon afterward.

That’s a sign that the current rules aren’t working, and something more needs to be done, Bilsky said. Most experts seem to agree.

“We’re prodding the agency to do something they would have gotten around to anyway,” said Mike Sutton, vice president of the aquarium and director of the Center for the Future of the Oceans. “We’re just trying to accelerate the process.”

Many think there’s no time to be lost. “The statistics show that bluefins are at their lowest population since we’ve been tracking, and fishing pressure is at its highest point,” said Stephen Roady, an attorney with Earthjustice, a public interest law firm representing the aquarium and three other organizations.

The federal government has the duty and the authority to take fast, decisive action, according to Bilsky. “… There’s no controversy about that. The only controversy is about how.”

Everyone seems to agree that protecting the spawning season and grounds of the western bluefin will not solve the whole bluefin deficit problem. That will also require international action to make fishermen face more meaningful restrictions than they do now in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the spawning grounds of the eastern bluefin.

Until that happens, some think it’s unfair to further restrict fishermen in the gulf. Others think it’s important for regulators to do as much as they can as soon as they can.