Lawsuit Filed To Protect Tuna

OCEAN CITY — Nearly one year to the day after threatening to sue federal fisheries officials over a failed threatened or endangered listing for Atlantic Bluefin tuna, an environmental watchdog agency last week filed suit in U.S. District Court in an attempt to reverse a rule change expanding the fishery.

In late December 2010, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced an endangered or threatened listing for Atlantic Bluefin tuna was not warranted based on the best available science. Instead, NMFS officials kept Bluefin tuna on the “species of concern” list and promised to revisit a potential ESA listing for the species in 2013.

Just days later, the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the original petition for an Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing for Atlantic Bluefin tuna, threatened to file a federal suit against NMFS and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for failing to take steps to protect the troubled species.

Last week, the Center for Biological Diversity made good on its promise when it filed suit in U.S. District Court against NMFS and NOAA attempting to reverse the agencies’ Final Rule for 2012 on the fisheries management of the species. Essentially, the federal suit accuses NMFS of expanding the domestic Atlantic Bluefin tuna commercial fishery at a time when the species is at its greatest peril.

“With depleted Bluefin tuna populations and, therefore, declining revenue, the industry has pressured the fisheries service to increase the economic potential of the Bluefin tuna fishery,” the complaint reads. “As a result, the fisheries service has incrementally expanded the Atlantic Bluefin tuna general category fishery from approximately five months a year, while the tuna were still off in northern New England, to 10 months a year, allowing fishermen to target Bluefin tuna as far south as Florida.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is challenging the new rule that it believes expands overfishing of the highly imperiled Atlantic Bluefin tuna. The lawsuit, filed last Thursday in U.S. District Court, seeks to halt the dramatic expansion of commercial fishing from Massachusetts to Florida and everywhere in between, including the mid-Atlantic region off the coast of Ocean City, in an effort to prevent Bluefin tuna from being fished into extinction.

It’s important to note the federal suit does not target the recreational Bluefin tuna fishery, a staple of the multi-million sportfishing industry off the coast of Ocean City each year. The recreational Bluefin tuna fishery is governed by a different set of rules, although the sportfishing industry does share the resources with the commercial side. In addition, local commercial anglers engage in the harvest of Atlantic Bluefin tuna when there is quota available and more than a few recreational fishermen cross over with a commercial permit at certain times of the year.

Center for Biological Diversity officials said last week NMFS’ final rule regarding the expansion of the Bluefin tuna fishery just months after it was added to the “species of concern” list could signal a death knell for the burly behemoths that often grow to over 1,000 pounds.

“Bluefin tuna were once the giants of the sea, but overfishing has depleted the ocean of this remarkable fish,” said CBD staff attorney Catherine Kilduff. “It’s completely backwards to ramp up fishing of Bluefin tuna at a time when they’re increasingly rare.”

According to CBD officials, NMFS’ latest rule nearly doubles the number of Bluefin tuna that can be caught each day as well as lengthened the fishing season.

“This rule enables fishermen to chase the remaining Bluefin tuna down the Atlantic coast on their way to reproduce in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Kilduff. “At some point, the last Bluefin tuna will be caught and there will be no fishery left at all.”