Bluefin tuna fishing should be shut down in the Gulf of Mexico to keep one of the world's largest and most valuable fish from dying out, environmentalists say.
NEW ORLEANS Bluefin tuna fishing should be shut down in the Gulf of Mexico to keep one of the world's largest and most valuable fish from dying out, environmentalists say.
Earthjustice and the Blue Ocean Institute sued the federal government this week, after the government's rejection of a petition by Earthjustice to close 125,000 square miles of the Gulf when bluefin are spawning.
Coincidentally, a study in the current issue of Nature warns that fish populations worldwide are on the brink of collapse. Researchers from Dalhousie University in Canada say long-term trends based on fish landings indicate decades of overfishing have driven most commercial species to unprecedented low numbers. If the trend is not reversed, the researchers claim, most fish stocks will crash by 2048.
The environmental groups' lawsuit was filed in Washington, D.C.
Federal fisheries managers say bluefin already are highly protected in domestic waters, and the species' decline is an international problem, since European nations catch more than 10 times as much bluefin tuna as are caught by North American nations.
Bluefin, which can reach 10 feet long and up to 1,500 pounds, travel thousands of miles every year to reach the spring spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. Direct fishing for bluefin was banned in U.S. waters in 1999, said Sam Rauch, deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Yet many of the fish end up getting caught and sold regardless, hooked by longline fishing vessels targeting mahi-mahi, albacore and yellowfin tuna. That "incidental catch" is not illegal. Between 1995 and 2004, the most recent data available, more than 22 million pounds of bluefin tuna worth $150 million were landed in U.S. ports in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.
The lawsuit contends federal conservation laws compel Rauch's agency to stop that trade.
"The population of bluefin has been declining steadily for 20 years," said plaintiffs' attorney Steve Roady. "Unless the fisheries service takes prompt action to halt the killing of these bluefin as they spawn, that population decline will continue and lead to a situation where ... it will never recover."
But David Maginnis, a tuna buyer in Dulac for Jensen Seafood, said fishing vessels in the Gulf catch only the occasional bluefin. The problem, he said, comes when the fish migrate to the other side of the Atlantic.
"The pressure for these fish in the Mediterranean is huge," Maginnis said. "After the hurricane (Katrina) we only have about 23, 24 active boats in Louisiana. We had 150 boats working out of Venice at one time. Are 23, 24 boats hurting the bluefin stock?"
Quotas set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas allowed the landing of 35,000 metric tons of tuna in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean last year.
That equals more than 77 million pounds -- roughly 70 times total U.S. landings in 2004.
"We think there's massive amounts of overfishing taking place in other nations," Rauch said.
An area of the Gulf known as the DeSoto Canyons already is closed to longline fishing every year, he said. Closing additional areas could simply push fishermen into waters where they might have a negative impact on other species, including endangered sea turtles, Rauch said.
"You would not want to take an action that would preserve tuna but have a devastating impact on sea turtles," he said.
Source: Associated Press