Business as Usual for Bluefin

Posted on July 08, 2011

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released the allocations for bluefin tuna among U.S. fisheries for 2012. The agency allocated the full quota of 957 metric tons that was given to the U.S. by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the international body that governs bluefin tunas and tuna-like species.

The traditional rod and reel commercial sector was given the largest portion of the U.S. quota with 435 metric tons, followed by the recreational sector with 182 metric tons. Allocations of the other sectors were: purse seine/large nets – 172 metric tons; longline, 61 metric tons; harpoon, 36 metric tons; traps 1 metric ton and a reserve of 70.6 metric tons. The reserve is set aside to account for dead discards and scientific research.
 
This allocation decision was set against the backdrop of two significant issues surrounding the bluefin tuna fishery. Earlier this year, the NOAA declined to protect the western Atlantic population of bluefin tuna under the Endangered Species Act, despite a decline in catch from a 1964 peak of 18,671 metric tons to just over 1,900 metric tons in 2009. Coastal Conservation Association did not support the ESA listing for bluefin tuna for a variety of reasons, but the efforts to have the species listed reflect the high degree of uncertainty that continues to surround the health and future of the bluefin tuna fishery.
 
Also earlier this year, NOAA grappled with how to adjust quotas to account for 160 metric tons of dead discards in the U.S. Longline Category. The 160 metric tons of dead tuna thrown back by the longliners is more than the entire longline allotment for 2012. The agency did not require the longliners alone to “pay back” their enormous waste of dead bluefin tuna, despite the profusion of new ‘accountability measures’ that will require such from numerous recreational fisheries. Instead, NOAA opened a public comment period for input from stakeholders on how to subtract the longliners’ overage from every other category, including the Angling Category.
 
Coastal Conservation Association stated its adamant opposition to any proposal to reduce quota from the Angling Category, as well as from other categories, in order to accommodate dead discards in the Longline Category.  We believe that the commercial longliners, who are solely responsible for such discards, should be held responsible for the consequences of their actions.
 
Yet, although the Longline Category produced 100 percent of the “excess” discards (i.e., discards that cannot be set off against unused 2010 quota), NOAA’s proposed rule required that only 8 percent of such discards will be subtracted from the Longline Category’s quota, with the other categories being required to subsidize the remainder.
 
CCA believed that was a wholly inadequate response to the indiscriminate waste of 160 metric tons of a fish that was on the verge of being listed as an endangered species.
 
In CCA’s view, the only truly viable way to substantially reduce dead bluefin discards in the longline fishery is to impose time and area closures. We requested that, in the short term, NOAA not implement the proposed rule with respect to quota adjustment, and instead implement time and area closures designed to reduce dead discards in the longline fishery by not less than 65 metric tons.  In the longer term, we asked that NOAA implement such time and area closures on the longline fishery to fully implement the mandate of National Standard 9, which requires that bycatch not just be reduced, but reduced to the full extent practicable.
 
Our comments were ignored, as were the comments of countless other angling organizations and those of other, less destructive bluefin tuna harvesting categories. With its announcement of the 2012 allocations, NOAA has decided that everyone will pay for the sins of the longlining sector.
 
NOAA’s decision is just the latest bizarre twist in the long history of bluefin tuna management, one that has been checkered with Band-aids and half-measures and greed. By allowing the Longline Category to continue its operations unencumbered by any additional regulation that might reduce the tons of dead, discarded, nearly endangered bluefin tuna, the old Bureau of Commercial Fisheries has signaled that it is business as usual.
 
If logical requests to curtail the use of the most indiscriminate commercial gear in the ocean with targeted time and area closures are ignored, then perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the agency is simply incapable of responsibly managing this particular fishery. Perhaps it is time for other participants in this fishery to consider a larger vision, such as simply removing longline gear from the management regime altogether through a buyout program or similar efforts.
 
In sports, substances and gear that give an individual player an unfair advantage over other players are labeled a threat to the integrity of the game and outlawed. Players who insist on using the offending gear are banned from the league. In the world of fisheries management, no consideration is given to the integrity of the league as a whole. Indeed, players using the most offensive gear in the game are coddled and protected at the expense of the other participants.
 
With its most recent announcement on bluefin quotas, the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries has not left many choices on the table. Banning commercial longliners from the league may be the only option left.