OCEAN CITY – A study released last week by a coalition on environmental groups seeking an endangered or threatened listing for Atlantic bluefin tuna, a staple of the recreational fishing industry off the coast of the Ocean City, estimates the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico killed 20 percent of the juveniles of the species in the western Atlantic, but certain fisheries groups are crying foul over the report’s findings.
Prompted in part by the oil spill catastrophe in the gulf late last spring and throughout much of the summer, a national environmental group in May filed a formal petition seeking Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for Atlantic bluefin tuna. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in May filed a formal petition for an ESA listing for bluefin tuna, citing the continued overfishing of the species complicated by the oil spill disaster and its potential devastating impact on the species’ spawning grounds in the gulf.
Last week, the CBD’s worst fears about the impacts of the oil spill on the bluefin tuna population were confirmed somewhat with the release of an independent study that estimated the oil spill catastrophe in the gulf killed 20 percent of the juvenile Atlantic bluefin tuna in the area during the important spawning season. The study, conducted by the Ocean Foundation in conjunction with the European Space Agency (ESA), which provided satellite imagery of the spawning areas in the gulf, confirms the devastation on an already imperiled species, according to CBD oceans program attorney Catherine Kilduff.
“The oil spill couldn’t have come at a worse time for bluefin tuna, which come to the Gulf of Mexico each year to spawn,” she said. “They had little chance of escaping unscathed. This study presents hard numbers showing just how high the death toll was.”
In September, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) ruled the petition to list bluefin tuna as threatened or endangered contained “substantial scientific information” that such a listing might be warranted. As a result, NMFS issued its 90-day rule on the petition, essentially agreeing it merited further review.
Depending on whose numbers one believes, there appears to be evidence the bluefin tuna population along the east coast has declined dramatically in recent years. According to the petition, the spawning stock biomass for bluefin tuna fell to a historic low 78,724 tons when data was last collected in 2009 compared to a beak total of over 305,000 tons in 1958. Perhaps more alarming, when the spawning stock biomass was calculated in 2007, it came in at over 200,000 tons, suggesting much of the decline over a 50-year period has occurred in the last few years.
With the release of the ESA and Ocean Foundation study last week, CBD officials are claiming the gulf oil spill disaster has compounded those alarming population estimates.
“This study confirms our worst fears about the oil spill’s impacts on bluefin tuna and provides more evidence that this species needs the Endangered Species Act to survive,” said Kilduff. “The federal government could have predicted the effects of the spill during spawning season prior to the disaster. Listing Atlantic bluefin tuna as endangered will prevent such an oversight from ever happening again.”
However, several recreational fishing advocacy groups have claimed the bluefin tuna fishery has never been more robust off the east coast including Ocean City. For example, the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) has accused the CBD for exploiting the gulf oil spill crisis to forward its own agenda.
“We cannot allow this environmental group and others who support its efforts to take advantage of the Gulf environmental crisis when there is no evidence that it has impacted the health of this stock,” said RFA Executive Director Jim Donofrio this week.
RFA Managing Director Jim Hutchinson said despite the alleged “scientific” data presented, the anecdotal evidence provided by those in the fishing industry suggests the bluefin tuna population is not threatened or endangered.
“Too many people in the tackle and charter boat industry are talking about the phenomenal inshore bluefin fishery during the last few years, which has really helped our east coast anglers offset pretty significant losses suffered as a result of the overly stringent regulatory policies,” he said. “If U.S. anglers believed that bluefin tuna were endangered, we’d support taking the necessary steps to assure the health of the stock. We can’t, however, ignore the significant evidence provided by fishermen along the east coast that the stocks are not endangered.”
An ESA listing for bluefin tuna could cripple the local sportfishing industry, already struggling in the face of difficult economic conditions and over-regulation. For years, bluefin tuna have been a staple of the charter fishing boat industry from North Carolina to New England including right here off the coast of Ocean City.
“Recreational fishermen have enjoyed bluefin tuna fishing for more than a hundred years,” he said. “Bluefin have for a long time been the common man’s big gamefish because they tend to be more accessible to near-shore areas than some of the tropical tunas such as yellowfin and big-eye.”
Conceding bluefin tuna landings are down significantly in recent years, largely due to increased federal regulations, RFA officials said there are still enough recreational fishermen participating in the industry to contribute substantially from an economic and social standpoint in terms of tackle sales, fuel sales, boat dockage, charters and indirect sales. Donofrio said an ESA listing for bluefin tuna could be devastating in coastal communities such as Ocean City.
“Although regulations have significantly reduced harvest and have all but eliminated the party boat industry from this fishery, it is still an important component of the recreational sector,” he said. “If these fish are listed as endangered, which we do not believe they are, the recreational fishing industry will suffer another significant blow.”
Donofrio criticized the CBD and its efforts to gain an endangered or threatened listing for bluefin tuna, citing the environmental group’s shortsightedness in terms of a potential human impact.
“They’re showing absolutely no concern for America’s fishermen or our coastal communities,” he said. “An ESA listing will only punish law-abiding U.S. citizens and a uniquely American industry. It will do nothing to protect the bluefin fishery.”