By Richard Gaines
NOAA's preliminary focus in attempting to control and eliminate discarded bluefin tuna is on the U.S. pelagic longline fishing fleet, which targets healthy stocks of sword and other tunas but also discards an average of more than 100 metric tons of bluefin a year, according to industry figures.
The prized fighter and food fish is managed via a quota system that divides the allocated catch between fishing categories both commercial and recreational, and also gives 8.1 percent of the total to the longliners who are not allowed to target bluefin, but may keep a proportion of its bycatch while discarding the rest. Bycatch is the term given to fish that is unintentionally hauled up by fishing boats that are targeting other species.
The American Bluefin Tuna Association, which represents commercial fishermen, reports dead discards by longline fishermen ranged from a low of 90 metric tons to a high of 160 metric tons between 2005 and 2010.
But the association faults the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, not the longliners, who are represented by the Blue Water Fishermen's Association.
"Today, with the swordfish resource completely rebuilt ... more longline vessels are returning to active duty and placing more baited hooks in the water," said Richard Ruais, executive director of the tuna association. "The increased swordfish effort is coming at a time when significant Mediterranean reductions of bluefin catches in the east are resulting in more bluefin emigrating across the Atlantic, and many more being intercepted by the U.S. longline hooks."
At the same time, NOAA's leadership has voluntarily reduced the bluefin quota, Ruais said in an email to the Times. His comments supplemented talking points delivered to a scoping meeting held by NOAA in Gloucester last Wednesday. Meetings continue throughout the range of the global migrator through June.
The comment period on how to alter the management plan and reduce waste of a heralded fighting fish and the most prized fin fish in the global sushi market continues through July 15. Then, NOAA will publish a draft amendment to the 1999 fishery management plan.
The rewriting is taking place in the aftermath of a failed application to get bluefin listed as an endangered species. The Center For Biological Diversity, which led that campaign, has also filed suit challenging NOAA's 2011 allocations and liberalized controls on bluefin retention — in numbers and size.
The smaller general allocation has put the longliners in an impossible position — allowing them fewer bluefin just as more bluefin are moving through the regions that longliners typically choose, said Ruais and a leading research scientist in Gloucester.
"Our research shows that, since the late 1990s, giant bluefin have shifted their centers of distribution eastward to offshore areas and Canadian Atlantic," wrote Molly Lutcavage, director and research professor at the Large Pelagic Research Center of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, based at Hodgkins Cove in Bay View.
"Our electronic tag data and habitat studies support this," she said. "Pelagic longliners are probably encountering more bluefin tuna because they're more available offshore and near the Gulf Stream margins.
"Smaller size classes are now more abundant in the Gulf of Mine and New England than they have been for decades," Lutcavage said. "So there are shifts in size classes and distributions occurring since the last fishery management plan."
The requirement to account for and reduce, if not eliminate, dead discards of giant bluefin tuna traces to a 2010 meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or ICCAT, which voted to make the "allocation of total allowable catch ... inclusive of dead discards." ICCAT required member nations to monitor and report on all sources of fishing mortality, including dead discards, and to minimize dead discards to the extent practicable.
The U.S. Atlantic pelagic longline fleet, currently comprised of fewer than 100 boats, has home ports along America's coasts from Texas to Maine," according to the Blue Water Fishermen's Association, who represents the pelagic longliners.
The fishery management plan for bluefin written in 1999 also covers swords and other tunas targeted by the longliners.
The association website says the number of swordfish permits is capped at 247.
"Although a few boats occasionally migrate during fishing seasons, most stay within a close proximity to their home ports," the association explains. "Many of these small coastal boats are less than 55 feet in length and make short fishing trips within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, which comprises the waters out to 200 miles from shore in most locations.
"A few vessels are up to 100 feet long, and fish in waters hundreds if not thousands of miles offshore. Depending on where the fish are and how well they are biting, a longline fishing trip can last from several days to six weeks or more. Pelagic longline fishing boats carry two to six crewmen in addition to the captain."
The association website is describing boats like the Andrea Gail, whose 1991 loss was chronicled in the book, "The Perfect Storm," and the boats of the Discovery cable TV series "Swords: Life on the Line."
The commercial bluefin boats and crews based out of Gloucester are now starring in the National Geographic reality TV show "Wicked Tuna."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-700, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.