Seeking to meet an international requirement, the National Marine Fisheries Service is exploring and gathering ideas for ways to minimize the waste of discarded bluefin tuna — the most prized of all fin fish and the species most fiercely fought over by fishermen and environmentalists.
Among the options discussed in a scoping document is commodifying the market to trade in bluefin catch shares, adopting the controversial management system that now rules the New England groundfishery.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last year denied an application to put the global migrator on the endangered species list. But bluefin remain a NOAA species of concern and is on a watch list "about its status and threats to the species," according to the NMFS "scoping document," which discusses possible solutions to U.S. management of the tuna.
NMFS held a scoping hearing Wednesday night in Gloucester, part of a series that began in New Jersey, and will move on to Louisiana, North Carolina, and New York City before wrapping up in Portland, Maine, the week of June 17.
The comment period for scoping a new management plan ends July 15, after which NMFS will produce its proposal, and put it out for public comment.
NMFS is moving to rewrite a 13-year-old fishery management plan to reduce dead discards — which result largely from legal long-line fishing for swordfish and other kinds of tuna.
There are more than 100 active long-liners stretching from Maine down to Florida and across the Gulf of Mexico, and about the same number of permits are currently inactive, according to industry estimates.
The long-liners now are allocated 8.1 percent of the U.S. bluefin share of the global allocation made by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the governing body for big tuna.
"As a scientist, one wonders why there are regulatory discards at all," said Molly Lutcavage, director and research professor of the Large Pelagics Research Center of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, at Hodgkins Cove in the city's Bay View section. "They offer no benefit to anyone. NMFS has a goal to reduce regulatory discards.
"I don't believe any other country has them," Lutcavage added.
ICCAT directed in 2010 that the total allowable catch allocation "is inclusive of dead discards."
In addition, nations given allocations of bluefin tuna were "required to monitor and report on all sources of fishing mortality, including dead discards, and shall minimize dead discards to the extent practicable."
This problem can be imagined as a clash between the participants of the new National Geographic television series "Wicked Tuna," aggravated that their allocation of bluefin might be reduced by NMFS, and participants of the Discovery Channel series "Swords: Life on the Line" looking to continue to catch and perhaps keep rather than discard the bluefin that they land as bycatch to their primary prey, swordfish.
The Andrea Gail and its Gloucester crew was lost in what the author Sebastian Junger called "The Perfect Storm" in 1991 while pursuing swordfish by the technique of long lining.
Dave Marciano of Gloucester, who crews on one of the "Wicked Tuna" boats, said the long-liners are not the bad guys.
"It's not that simple," said Marciano in a telephone interview Thursday. "When stocks increase (as the Eastern stock of bluefin has been doing), you're going to have an increase in bycatch. It's been many years since the general category (commercial bluefin fishery) has been shut down. (The long-liners) are getting a little bit of quota that nobody's been using anyway."
For now, the problem, reducing the waste in discarded bluefin, which can routinely bring tens of thousands of dollars for a single fish on the global sushi market, is much clearer than the solution, but NMFS' Highly Migratory Species Management Division outlined a series of options' pros and cons.
Among the measures in the scoping document are:
Revising the allocation distribution between recreational and commercial sectors,which includes a sizeable allocation to a purse seine fishery that has been virtually dormant for some time.
Reducing minimum size for keeping bluefin, a formulaic deduction of dead discards from each quota category.
Putting the fishery under catch share management, essentially commodifying the highest valued fin fish.
"The creation of a market for bluefin tuna allocation may create an advantage for well-capitalized businesses, and be perceived as unfair by relatively small businesses," the scoping document noted.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or email@example.com.