Bluefin Tuna Not Endangered, Data Says

OCEAN CITY — Federal fisheries management officials last Friday announced an endangered or threatened listing for Atlantic bluefin tuna, a staple of the resort’s vast recreational fishery and important element in the multi-million sportfishing industry, is not warranted at this time, although the bluefin tuna remains on the “species of concern” list.

During a conference call last Friday morning, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Secretary for Conservation and Management Dr. Larry Robinson announced after months of careful review of the best scientific data available, the Atlantic bluefin tuna population figures do not require a listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

“After an extensive review, NOAA has concluded an endangered or threatened listing for Atlantic bluefin tuna is not warranted at this time,” said Robinson. “We remain concerned about the western Atlantic spawn and NOAA is committed to revisit the decision in 2013.”

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 last May filed a formal petition seeking Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for Atlantic bluefin tuna. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) 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.

The panel of scientists and fisheries managers on the conference call Friday morning said Atlantic bluefin tuna will remain on the species of concern list because the timing of the ESA review did not allow for a full accounting of the gulf oil spill. The western population of Atlantic bluefin tuna spawn in the Gulf of Mexico and the long-term effects on the health of the population is still uncertain.

“We’re going to continue to review the data and closely monitor the health of the species until we know more about the impact of the BP oil spill,” said Eric Schwaab, Assistant NOAA Administrator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service.

While the NOAA team found that the presently available information did not favor a listing, it also recognized the need to continue to monitor the potential long-term effects of the spill on bluefin tuna and the overall ecosystem. New scientific information is expected in a 2012 bluefin tuna stock assessment and as part of the Natural Resources Damage Assessment of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill.

Perhaps of larger concern is the continued cooperation of foreign nations in the management of the species. The panel said there has been marked improvement in recent months among the nations targeting bluefin tuna, but the actions of international fishermen will continue to be closely monitored.

“Based on careful scientific review, we have decided the best way to ensure the long-term sustainability of bluefin tuna is through international cooperation and strong domestic fishery management,” said Schwaab. “The United States will continue to be a leader in advocating science-based quotas at ICCAT, full compliance with these quotas and other management measures to ensure the long-term viability of this and other important fish stocks.”

The Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), which advocates on behalf of anglers, had been following the ESA review for bluefin tuna closely.

RFA Executive Director Jim Donofrio this week agreed the long-term health of the species was dependent on the cooperation of the international commercial fishermen. Donofrio recommended the U.S. hold international fisheries’ feet to the fire on compliance issues.

“U.S. fishermen should not carry the entire burden of rebuilding this important fishery, nor will imposing ESA-based regulations in U.S. waters increase the likelihood that ICCAT contracting members will comply with agreed upon quotas,” he said. “The obvious and most effective solution to end habitual noncompliance is the use of sanctions under U.S. trade law.”

Donofrio said the impact of an ESA listing for bluefin tuna would have extended far beyond the specific species.

“An ESA listing not only would have put an end to angler harvest as well as catch and release fishing for bluefin, it could have also led to serious restrictions on other related fisheries,” said Donofrio. “This decision is good news for coastal anglers.”

Locally, the sportfishing community was applauding NOAA’s decision not to list blue marlin and threatened or endangered.

Captain Mark Hoos of the “Marli” said this week the trickle-down impact of an ESA listing could have been enormous.

“From a charter fishing standpoint, an ESA listing for bluefin tuna would have been devastating to our industry,” he said. “The economic ramifications of a listing for bluefin tuna would have been huge. We’re not just talking about charter trips. We’re talking about hotel stays and restaurant meals, food, bait, ice, beer, all of those things that go into it would have been affected.”