Lawsuit Threatened Over Bluefin Tuna

OCEAN CITY — Just days after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced a threatened or endangered listing for Atlantic bluefin tuna was not warranted at this time, the environmental watchdog agency that filed the original petition threatened to sue the federal agency for failing to take steps to protect the troubled species.

Two weeks ago, NOAA officials announced an endangered or threatened listing for Atlantic bluefin tuna, a staple of Ocean City’s vast offshore recreational fishery and an important element in the multi-million dollar sportfishing industry, was not needed, although the bluefin tuna remains on the “species of concern” list.

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.

On May 27, after months of review, NOAA officials announced an endangered or threatened listing for Atlantic bluefin tuna was unnecessary because stock assessment data did not indicate the species had fallen below acceptable thresholds for a listing under the ESA. However, federal fisheries officials warned an ESA listing for bluefin tuna could be revisited as early as 2013 after a full accounting of the impacts on the gulf oil spill was complete.

Unsatisfied with NOAA’s decision, the Center for Biological Diversity last week formally notified the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) it intends to sue the federal agency for failing to protect Atlantic bluefin tuna under the ESA. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, bluefin tuna continue to face extinction due to severe overfishing and habitat degradation, including the BP oil spill in the gulf last spring and summer.

“If the government doesn’t move quickly, the question won’t be when the bluefin tuna will recover, but if this animal will survive at all,” said CBD attorney Catherine Kilduff. “Precipitous declines may not be reversible unless protections finally put a halt to overfishing and protect bluefin tuna nursery grounds.”

According to the CBD, overfishing of Atlantic bluefin tuna has caused a population decline of over 80 percent, due largely to international commercial fishing. Kilduff said the millions of gallons of oil that gushed into the bluefin tuna spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico last summer during the breeding season further diminished the species’ chance for recovery. Scientists estimate the oil killed more than 20 percent of the juvenile bluefin tuna in 2010.

While the NOAA team found that the presently available information did not favor an ESA 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. 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.

In the meantime, the CBD is preparing to take NOAA to court in order to force further protections for Atlantic bluefin tuna.

“If we don’t stop overfishing, bluefin tuna will vanish, leading to empty hooks and an empty ocean,” said Kilduff. “With each year, bluefin tuna become scarcer in U.S. waters. It’s time to halt the decline before bluefin tuna disappear forever.”