Bluefin Tuna Under Endangered Species Review

OCEAN CITY – An effort to list Atlantic bluefin tuna, a staple of the resort area’s vast recreational fishery, as an endangered or threatened species, passed a key first hurdle last week when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) ruled the petition contained “substantial scientific information” that a listing may be warranted.

Prompted in part by the oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico 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 in the gulf and its potential devastating impact on the species’ spawning grounds. Incidentally, the same group tried unsuccessfully in 2007 to have the white marlin listed as endangered or threatened.

Last week, NMFS issued its 90-day rule on the petition, agreeing the petition merited further review. NMFS’ position was formally posted in the Federal Register on Tuesday.

“We find that the petition presents substantial scientific information indicating the petitioned action may be warranted,” the NMFS statement reads. “We will conduct a status review of Atlantic bluefin tuna to determine if the petitioned action is warranted.”

While the petition submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity to list bluefin tuna under the ESA contains “substantial information” that the action may be warranted, NMFS officials were clear to point out the finding last week was just the beginning.

“The finding is the first step in responding to every petition filed with NOAA fisheries to list a species under the ESA,” the NMFS statement reads. “An affirmative 90-day finding is required if the petition presents sufficient information to meet criteria specified in the ESA. As a result of this affirmative finding, Atlantic bluefin tuna are now considered a candidate species.”

According to the CBD petition, the catalyst for the listing was the ongoing crisis associated with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but, in fact, the petition for an ESA listing for bluefin tuna as endangered or threatened has its roots in the perceived decades-long over-fishing of the species by the recreational and commercial sectors, both in the U.S. and internationally.

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.

While the petition to list bluefin tuna and endangered or threatened may be directly related to the Gulf disaster, environmental groups have long sought protections through a national and international regulatory process for the highly coveted species. However, there has been little mutual cooperation between the nations that target bluefin tuna. To that end, the CBD is hoping the Gulf oil disaster might be the catalyst for change.

“Bluefin tuna encounter thousands of deadly hooks while migrating across the Atlantic and now an oil spill will welcome home the survivors,” said Catherine Kilduff, CBD oceans attorney and author of the petition for an ESA listing. “Bluefin tuna need the protection of the Endangered Species Act, which can provide an important safety net before bluefin tuna disappear entirely from the ocean.”

The local sportfishing community has been following closely the petition closely.

“I have been following it, and, quite honestly, I’ve been expecting this all summer,” said Ocean City Marlin Club President and charter captain Franky Pettolina. “A bluefin tuna closure would greatly impact charter and private boat fishermen quite a bit here in Ocean City. In the early part of our season, the bluefin tuna is a mainstay.”

Pettolina said this week the impact of an ESA listing for bluefin tuna would extend far beyond the immediate charter business in the area.

“A closure of this fishery would not only impact charters, but also bait shops, marinas, fuel sales, tournament entries and the list goes on and on,” he said.

While he doesn’t completely discount some of the findings in CBD petition, Pettolina said its intent could be misdirected.

“The sad part is that closing it down here will only be a small help to the fishery, if at all,” he said. “There is still wholesale slaughter going on internationally, and until that is addressed, the fishery will not be helped.”