Pity, for a moment, the poor Atlantic bluefin tuna. It’s not bad enough that its population has been decimated by diners’ seemingly insatiable appetite for sushi. Or that the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred at the height of its spawning season, in its only known Western spawning grounds.
No, bluefin also are plagued by another long-standing problem: They are inevitably caught by long-line fishermen trying to hook bigger, healthier schools of yellowfin tuna, swordfish and big-eye tuna. Under government regulations, the fishermen are allowed to bring a small number of the carefully regulated and valuable fish to shore for sale, but most of them die on hooks hanging from 20-mile fishing lines and are discarded at sea.
“No one wants to interact with bluefin,” said Terri Beideman, executive director of the Blue Water Fishermen’s Association, which represents about 120 tuna fishing vessels, most of them mom-and-pop operations. “They come onto your gear accidentally. No one is targeting them.” By one estimate, 111 metric tons of bluefin were killed this way in one year.
The “bycatch” problem is slowing efforts to rebuild the bluefin population in the western Atlantic, which is at 36 percent of the 2012 level, according to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.
Now, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the U.S. government agency that regulates offshore fishing, has waded into the controversy. It is proposing a complicated new plan designed to reduce the number of bluefin that long-liners inadvertently snare. The fish has been intensively managed for more than two decades, officials said, but the regulations need updating, in part to help reduce bycatch.