The National Marine Fisheries Service is floating ideas for future management of Atlantic bluefin tuna, with an emphasis on reducing bycatch of these threatened giants. The hope is to lower the amount of incidental landings in the United States longline fishery, including in the Gulf of Mexico, the bluefin’s only known spawning grounds in the western Atlantic Ocean.
NMFS is now seeking comment on a recently-released Scoping Document. The management alternatives that survive this round of public comment will be developed and considered through Draft Amendment 7 to the Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan later this year.
The issues and objectives under consideration are based on written and oral comments received by the agency over the last several years, recognizing that the U.S. longline fishery has a significant detrimental impact on efforts to restore overfished bluefin tuna to healthy levels. Four measures long-advocated by the National Coalition for Marine Conservation are included in the document and I urge you to contact NMFS to show your support for the following suggestions:
1. Implement a New Longline Closed Area in the Gulf of Mexico:
Closure of the Northern Gulf to longlining during the peak bluefin tuna spawning months of April through June would significantly reduce bluefin bycatch of rare breeders. It could be expanded through the summer months to minimize bycatch of billfish. It is enforceable through electronic vessel monitoring systems.
2. Longline Catch Cap by Region or Fleet-Wide:
An annual cap on incidental catch of bluefin tuna (landed and discarded), after which longlining would end for the season, would create a strong incentive for tuna and swordfish longliners to alter their fishing strategies to avoid bluefin or switch to more selective alternative gears. A bycatch cap would require enhanced observer coverage.
3. Transition from Longlines to Greenstick and/or Buoy Gear:
Closures and caps can be used in combination to move the fleet away from longlines to the use of greensticks for yellowfin tuna and buoy gear for swordfish. The shift to these gears would maximize protection for bluefin while transitioning the fishery to alternative gears shown to have high catch rates of target species with insignificant amounts of bycatch of any species.
4. Restrict Length of Longline Gear During Specific Times and Areas:
The root problem with longlines is they’re too long — from 20 to 40 miles — and they’re in the water 12 hours or more. Shorter lines and soak times may not help bluefin in the Gulf, where mortality after hook-up is high because of the warm waters and amount of energy expended during spawning. But studies indicate that billfish and sharks that are on the line from 3 to 6 hours have a substantially higher survival rate than fish that spend more time on the hook, even when using circle hooks.
We ask all anglers to submit comments on the scoping document (identified by “NOAA-NMFS. 2012-0082”) by the deadline on July 15, 2012, by one of the following methods: Submit electronic comments via www.regulations.gov; fax to 978-281-9340; or send mail to Tom Warren, Highly Migratory Species Management Division, NMFS 55 Great Republic Drive, Gloucester, MA 01930.