The stakes have risen again in the battle over bluefin tuna.
More valuable than ever to New England's regulation-saddled fishing fleet — and reported in abundance offshore this fall by local boats — the prized sushi fish is now the subject of an attempted endangered species listing in the United States, a designation that could end fishing for the species here.
Filed by the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group best known for its work against the logging industry on behalf of the spotted owl, the bid for bluefin endangered species status may be a longshot.
Environmental giants such as the World Wildlife Fund, which have pumped millions of dollars into bluefin protection and just last year pushed unsuccessfully for an international trade ban, have not moved to support a U.S. endangered listing.
Still, the mere suggestion of endangered status sends shivers through those on the waterfront who have fended off repeated attempts to ban or curtail bluefin fishing over the years, and now rely on landings of the valuable, globe-trekking fish to compensate for draconian groundfish catch limits.
"Quite frankly, it is preposterous," said Rich Ruais, president of the American Bluefin Tuna Association, on Friday about the petition. "The Endangered Species Act (designation) is a vindictive action taken by the Center for Biological Diversity that has no chance of helping the health and recovery of the species. Bluefin tuna are well on there way to rebuilding."
Massachusetts's congressional delegation, including both U.S. senators and Congressmen Barney Frank, John Tierney and William Delahunt agreed, calling on NOAA to reject the bid last month.
But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is responsible for managing tuna here and has also been sued over bluefin limits, has not dismissed the petition and last month ruled that endangered species action "may be warranted." The agency ordered a "status review" of bluefin in advance of making a ruling on the petition next spring.
"It's a pretty low bar," said Marta Nammack, NOAA Fisheries Service endangered species coordinator, about NOAA's obligation to conduct a status review if petitioned under the Endangered Species Act. "We'll assemble a team to collect the best scientific information and make calculations on risk."
Because so many nations catch bluefin, which can fetch thousands of dollars on the sushi market and traverse the Atlantic Ocean, protecting them is an international issue.
That's why even those who support stronger protections for the fish are wary of using a domestic endangered species listing: the move would have no effect on the nations that catch the most tuna.
Internationally, bluefin quotas are set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).
By far, the largest number of bluefin taken each year are from Europe and the Mediterranean nations, where fishermen use large nets and holding pens and spotter planes are employed in the harvest. Annually, the United States accounts for less than 5 percent of the total Atlantic catch.
On the docks in Gloucester, the importance of bluefin to the fleet — especially to boat owners whose allocation of groundish has been slashed to paltry levels — has increased.
This fall, a group of small Gloucester groundfish boats, between 30 and 40 feet, have begun travelling more than 100 miles offshore to Georges Bank in search of tuna.
Some report seas "boiling" with the fish and landings being made with hotdogs as bait.
For the first time in at least five years, American fishermen are on target to catch all of the country's 900 metric ton quota of bluefin. Through Aug. 31, the last month landings data is available, 209 metric tons of bluefin had been landed in this country compared with 166 metric tons at the same time last year, according to NOAA.
The Center for Biological Diversity has used the fact that the United States has not met its tuna quota, which fishgermen atttribute to dogfish and size and trip limits, as evidence that the species is still in decline.
Gloucester fisherman Mark Carroll, captain of the 40-foot Harvest Moon, which has been outfitted for everything from groundfishing, to squidding to tuna fishing, is one of the local fishermen who would suffer from a tuna ban.
"It's becoming more and more important," said Carroll as he readied the Harvest Moon for another long-distance tuna trip at Harbor Loop on Thursday. "We need more diversity of what we can catch, not less."
The United States also has some of the world's strictest, if not the strictest, internal controls on tuna fishing. American commercial fishermen can only land tuna 73 inches or longer (more than 6 feet) and can only take three fish per trip. Regulations require most tuna to be caught with rod and reel or harpoon.
Those opposed to the Center for Biological Diversity petition argue that banning bluefin fishing in the United States, while depriving local ports of a valuable asset, will only reward the countries doing the most damage to the stocks.
The World Wildlife Fund, which has been an aggressive advocate for bluefin protection for years, is not taking an official position on the endangered species petition. Policy spokesman Joe Pouliot on Friday said the U.S. organization's "main focus is on the international process and ICCAT."
Calls to the Pew Environment Group, another historic supporter of bluefin protections, were not returned.
In explaining its reasoning for trying for a domestic solution to an international problem, the Center for Biological Diversity agures that ICCAT has failed.
"Bluefin tuna is in a lot of trouble and ICCAT has been dismal," said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney in the center's oceans program. "The contracting parties don't report the catch, so it is difficult for ICCAT to get a handle on how much catch is occurring in eastern Mediterranean and then, from that, how many spawners are left."
Kilduff noted that an attempt last year, supported by the U.S. government, to have bluefin protected as an international endangered species under the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) also failed.
In its petition, Biological Diveristy also cites potential damage to bluefin tuna spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as a reason for a listing.
Quota meeting looms
Little known in the fisheries management world, the Center for Biological Diversity, founded by three men surveying owls for the U.S. Forest Service in New Mexico, has made its name and grown its organization through campaigns and lawsuits based on the Endangered Species Act.
In 2002, it started a push to list Atlantic white marlin as endangered, but was denied by NOAA.
The Biological Diversity petition comes at a critical time for ICCAT, which took a public relations beating during the CITES debate and, under increased scrutiny, is getting ready to meet in November to set next year's international bluefin quotas.
Things are already off to a contentious start, with ICCAT scientists this week failing to come to an agreement on a recommended catch and warning of significant uncertainty about the condition of the stock.
ICCAT is scheduled to set the 2011 quotas at its annual meeting next month in Paris.
Patrick Anderson can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com.