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Why it Matters
By the late 1990s, stock assessments demonstrated that the Western stock of Atlantic bluefin tuna was over-exploited. This determination spurred the international community to implement a 20-year rebuilding program. Though the biomass of the stock has been increasing since the early 2000s, it remains well below 1974 levels. Recent assessments are inconclusive regarding whether the stock remains overfished or has been rebuilt.
High rates of accidental catches of bluefin tuna by fishing vessels targeting other species hamper the stock’s ability to rebuild. Gear restrictions, such as requiring weaker hooks that allow heavier fish like the bluefin tuna to escape, significantly decrease accidental catches of bluefin tuna. Gear restrictions in the US pelagic longline fishery, which covers the Gulf of Mexico, are particularly important, because the Gulf of Mexico is the only known spawning ground for the Western stock of Atlantic bluefin tuna.
Under the Obama Administration, NMFS strengthened protections for Bluefin Tuna, including by requiring certain types of hooks that protected the tuna and other measures. On April 2, 2020, NMFS finalized a rule weakening those protections. Environmental groups challenged that rule on April 29, 2020.
1998 the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, to which the US is a party, recommends establishing a rebuilding program for Western Atlantic Bluefin Tuna after findings that the population is overexploited. The recommendation enters into force on June 21, 1999.
July 2006 The National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) finalizes the Consolidated Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan. The plan covers Atlantic billfish, Atlantic tunas, swordfish and sharks.
April 5, 2011 NMFS mandates the use of weak hooks (hooks that straighten under pressure and avoid catching larger fish like bluefin tuna) in the Gulf of Mexico pelagic longline fishery.
Dec. 2, 2014 NMFS publishes Amendment 7 to the 2006 Consolidated Fishery Management Plan, which increases protection measures for bluefin tunas.
March 2, 2018 NMFS publishes a Notice of Intent to prepare a draft environmental impact statement and holds scoping meetings regarding potential modifications to the 2006 Consolidated Fishery Management Plan. NMFS is considering alternative management measures that would allow fishing vessels to meet the quota for targeted species in the longline fishery, such as swordfish, while continuing to protect the Atlantic bluefin tuna population.
May 10, 2019 NMFS publishes the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. NMFS states that the agency “is considering whether current area-based and gear management measures are still necessary to reduce and/or maintain low numbers of bluefin tuna discards and interactions in the pelagic longline fishery….”
July 12, 2019 NMFS publishes a proposed rule to loosen protections for Atlantic bluefin tuna. The rule proposes four actions, consistent with NMFS’ preferred alternatives in the draft environmental impact statement: evaluations of two GRAs, elimination of the Cape Hatteras GRA, and shortening the year-long weak hook requirement for the Gulf of Mexico to a seasonal requirement. The comment period is open until September 30, 2019, and NOAA receives over 11,000 comments.
April 2, 2020 The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) publishes a final rule consistent with its 2019 proposal. The rule eliminates the Cape Hatteras GRA and shortens the year-long weak hook requirement for the Gulf of Mexico to a seasonal requirement. It also changes two restricted areas to “monitoring areas.” These areas will be under evaluation for three years, meaning that some pelagic longline fishing will be allowed at times when the areas were previously closed.
April 29, 2020 Two non-profits file a lawsuit challenging the changes to the Northeastern US Closed Area and the Spring Gulf of Mexico GRA. They allege that it “violates [NMFS’] fundamental duties to prevent and end overfishing through management measures based on the best available science, to enact measures necessary to protect bluefin in accordance with international treaty obligations, and to seriously consider the effects of allowing increased incidental catch (“bycatch”) and death of reproductive adult bluefin during their peak spawning season on the already struggling bluefin population.” Healthy Gulf v. NMFS, No. 8:20-cv-01104 (D. Md.).