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Photo courtesy of Ocean Conservancy
Photo courtesy of Ocean Conservancy

Restoring Bluefin Tuna with the Power of Fishermen

The vast majority of Americans have never seen a bluefin tuna cruising the Atlantic Ocean. For many of us, all tunas are the same – flakey, fishy mash that comes readily accessible in little grocery store cans. In this context, imagining tuna scarcity would be next to impossible – there are whole shelves of tuna in one store! Not all tuna is created equal, however. And eating fish from cans isn’t the best way to experience this particular protein.

Bluefin tuna are special, majestic even. Carl Safina painted a beautiful portrait of this creature in his book Song for the Blue Ocean:

“Close your eyes. Think fish. Do you envision half a ton of laminated muscle rocketing through the sea as fast as you drive your automobile? Do you envision a peaceful warrior capable of killing you unintentionally with a whack of its tail? These giant tuna strain the concept of fish.”

As well, they strain our concept of a fishery. In January of 2013, a single bluefin tuna sold in Japan for $1.7 million. This is the kind of price tag that makes a month-long fishing trip worthwhile if you can catch but a single fish. The market value has led to overfishing, and overfishing has led, as it always does, to population decline.

The prized deep red muscles of Atlantic bluefin tuna are built for speed and strength, and power migrations from the North Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico in springtime, where the deep canyons of the northern Gulf provide the fish’s only known spawning grounds. Bluefin are largely protected from commercial harvest in the Gulf for this reason, but they still must negotiate a labyrinth of baited hooks on fishing lines miles in length (known as longlines) targeting other commercially valuable species like yellowfin tuna and swordfish. In the process, bluefin can be accidentally caught on the commercial fleet’s unmanned lines.

Regulations prohibit these fishermen from keeping and selling the accidental catch (lest they ‘accidentally’ catch the lucrative fish more often), and hundreds of these majestic travelers are killed annually as discards when they come to the Gulf to breed.

A pilot study aimed at solving this problem replaced conventional, unmanned longlines, with a new method called “green stick” fishing, yielding promising results that allowed fishermen to continue targeting other fish while eliminating accidental interactions with bluefin tuna—a win-win for fish and fisherman. Converting the entire longline fleet to this new gear could usher in a new era of fishing that promotes and supports bluefin tuna recovery without compromising the livelihoods of the fishermen.

Converting gear, a vessel, and a lifetime of experience is not without cost, however, and the fishermen who have signed on to voluntarily transition their operations need help. This is where BP comes in. The annual bluefin tuna Gulf migration and spawning in the spring of 2010 overlapped with the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Because the laws and policies governing oil spills in the United States have a firm ‘you broke it, you fix it’ restoration philosophy, bluefin tuna recovery projects are a good fit for funding. While we are still learning how oil exposure damaged the bluefin population, losing an entire year’s worth of breeding production would be devastating to the already depleted Atlantic population of bluefin tuna. Ensuring that hundreds of breeding adults survive future trips to the Gulf may ultimately mitigate some of that loss. When you consider the results of the pilot study, a fleet wide transition to cleaner fishing methods could allow fishermen to catch the yellowfin tuna and swordfish they are after, and better avoid bluefin, sharks, turtles and other species of concern that are hauled up with the current gear.

Bobby Nguyen served as a liaison to the Vietnamese fishermen in South Louisiana who participated in the gear transition study, and he put it this way:

“Our challenge is the conflict between a community that has been fishing for generations and the need to recover bluefin tuna. We want to contribute to this effort without losing our livelihood and cultural identity, and this transition to newer fishing gear allows us to fish but also reduce our impact on incidentally caught bluefin, turtles, sharks and other species. It’s a winning solution for fish, fishermen and consumers, who ultimately get to enjoy a great Louisiana product – yellowfin tuna – that few people know we have.”

How do you replace the irreplaceable? Our answer for bluefin tuna is to give the population a chance to recover and the fishermen the opportunity to see it through.

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