Is an ESA Listing on the Horizon for Bluefin Tuna?
In a move predicted by CCA and other sportfishing conservation groups last May, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has filed a petition with NOAA Fisheries seeking to list the species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). The move was almost inevitable after Atlantic bluefin tuna did not receive a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) listing that would have eliminated the species’ international trade.
The petition cited International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) assessment results showing declines in spawning stock biomass on the order of 80 percent since 1970 for both east and west Atlantic stocks and the continued failure of international and domestic management to develop recovery programs adequate to rebuild both stocks. Claiming that both stocks of bluefin tuna meet the criteria for listing as endangered or threatened under the Act, CBD is seeking to invoke the draconian measures necessary to prevent extinctions to solve an admittedly serious, but not fatal fisheries management problem.
NOAA Fisheries agreed last September that the petition presented adequate evidence to conclude that a status review of the status of bluefin relative to the ESA was appropriate. This review is ongoing and must be completed by May 24 of this year. In the process the NMFS will evaluate all existing scientific and commercial information to determine if the species would qualify for an endangered or threatened listing.
Under the ESA, an endangered listing is warranted if a species is found to be in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A listing as threatened can be made if the review concludes that the species is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future. If either listing action is taken, the agency will have one additional year to develop a final set of regulations to implement protections mandated by the ESA.
Either listing will have dramatic consequences for U.S. bluewater anglers. A listing would only affect fishing and harvesting in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens regardless of where they are fishing. We would expect a total closure of bluefin fishing, including catch-and –release fishing, to follow and possibly all big game fishing in areas known to hold bluefin would be affected as well.
Coastal Conservation Association, along with the Center for Coastal Conservation, American Sportfishing Association, International Game Fish Association and The Billfish Foundation were united in strong support of a CITES listing that would have effectively removed the lucrative Japanese market incentive from the bluefin fisheries. Removing the profit incentive would have allowed sportfishing and modest commercial harvest to supply domestic markets and taken much pressure of these stocks. Few in the sportfishing conservation community do not agree that bluefin tuna in the Atlantic are seriously overfished and all have a history of support for strong domestic and international conservation measures and low annual quotas for this species. The heavily depleted eastern stock of bluefin that may now supply half of the bluefin taken by recreational and commercial harvesters of the U.S. East Coast is a major example of management failure and has, until perhaps this past year, received little protection from commercial harvest. The western stock has been reduced to only 20 percent of its former abundance while under severe, science-based quotas for the past two decades.
In recent months we have heard increasing discussions among our members and supporters encouraging a voluntarily halt to targeting bluefin. Every angler must decide how they will personally deal with such conservation issues.. However, an objective review of the facts and the science in this case suggest that any listing under the ESA would not be appropriate.
Given an 80 percent decline in spawning biomass between 1970 and the early 1990s, western bluefin have nevertheless remained at stable levels of abundance for the past 20 years. Harvests in the west have stayed below the annual quota levels and all sectors of the fishery are tightly managed. While it is quite possible that this stock may never rebuild to the levels seen in the 1960s, there is no indication that there is a real risk of extinction after more than two decades at stable stock sizes. Some of us can recall that redfish in Florida had been reduced to less than one percent of the virgin spawning stock biomass before gamefish status. Strict angling rules generated a recovery that saw the stock increase to a level of nearly 40 percent. Wise management actions can produce great successes in overfished fisheries.
In the east, spawning stock has declined by 80 perecnt in the past 20 years and, until just recently, management has been jeopardized by illegal fishing, under-reported catches and a lack of serious consideration of the overfishing problems by the European Community, especially the fishing nations of the Mediterranean. However, things appear to be changing. In the past two years, ICCAT has adopted quotas within the range recommended by scientists. Perhaps singed by the 2010 CITES publicity, the European Community appears willing to authorize and enforce strong monitoring and enforcement activities to keep harvesting fleets under control. An ESA action won’t reach to the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean where the problems occur. ESA action would only pay lip service and would do nothing to solve the fisheries management problems. Unilateral regulations on U.S. anglers would at most reduce east Atlantic stock mortality by the 4 to 5 percent that currently occurs in U.S. waters.
CCA supports continued and increasing conservation measures and calls on NOAA Fisheries to close the Gulf of Mexico to longline fishing between April and October to provide complete protection to spawning bluefin, and well as blue and white marlin and other species taken and killed as bycatch in this fishery. We favor stronger U.S. efforts at ICCAT to close the Mediterranean Sea to all purse seine fishing for bluefin to protect the eastern spawning stock. However, CCA does not support an ESA listing for Atlantic bluefin.
Dr. Russell Nelson is CCA’s Gulf of Mexico Fishery Consultant, a member of the U.S. Advisory Committee to the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, Chief Scientist for The Billfish Foundation, and a 20-year veteran of marine fisheries conservation, management and research.