Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? That certainly seems to be the case with so many bluefin tuna being landed that buyers are telling fishermen to tie up their boats for a week until the market recovers. It’s become an annual event and each time it happens, people point fingers, make accusations and voice their complaints. Few offer logical solutions and it likely won’t change unless we make the effort to evaluate the situation, put things into perspective and address the affliction rather than the symptoms.
Too many fish
For the last several seasons, usually around mid-July, there’s a point where the bluefin market gets flooded because so many fish are caught and landed in a short period. But isn’t that a good thing? It means tuna are abundant. Yes, there are more boats in the water, but the reason more fish are being landed is due more to availability than effort. The downside is that prices plummet and the limited quota gets filled too quickly, meaning a hasty end to fishing season at its peak.
Preliminary steps were taken to address this in 2020, after results of the stock assessment seemed to conflict with what fishermen observed. The assessment said the stock was healthy but possibly in need of increased protection through quota reductions because of poor recruitment. The U.S. fishing community, special interest groups and fisheries managers joined forces to dispute that assessment.
First they gathered evidence to contradict the claims, while at the same time pointing out flaws in the procedures used to assess stocks. The models failed to take into account mixing between eastern and western stocks. Pretty much everyone admitted MRIP data are flawed. Additional spawning areas are not taken into account, and dramatically increasing release rates of sub-legal fish by commercial fishermen are not being recorded. Meanwhile, both commercial and recreational anglers were seeing increasingly more young, small fish while the models said they didn’t exist.
The effort was worthy enough to warrant a second assessment, and then an acknowledgment that revision was needed as stocks indeed appeared stronger than initially thought. In the short term, that resulted in a small quota increase for the western Atlantic bluefin fishery. So far, so good, but we can’t wait five years for another assessment.
In 2021, NOAA Fisheries implemented restricted fishing days (RFDs) as a means to lengthen the season and more importantly, alleviate an oversupply on the market. It may help, but as we’re already observing in 2022, it’s not enough.
The simple reason, as noted above, is that more fish are being landed, and despite limiting the general category to only four fishing days per week, it appears the June to August subquota period will close sometime in early August. That means for much of August, during the time when most anglers are on the water, they won’t be able to fish.
There’s not much we can do about the quota, in the short term, but what about the market? The overseas markets - primarily Japan - couldn’t handle or didn’t want all these fish. In simple economic terms, supply vastly exceeded demand, prompting local dealers to reduce prices and in some cases refuse to purchase fish. Perhaps this should be viewed not as a problem, but an opportunity.
The problem is not too many fish; it’s that we’re too dependent on overseas markets. It’s paradoxical that in a country where 90 percent of our seafood is imported, we should have an overabundance of any domestic seafood. The western Atlantic bluefin tuna fishery is healthy and sustainable.
Their recovery is a tremendous conservation success story and example of sound, responsible fisheries management. In terms of quality, bluefin are among the most desirable and delectable fish in the sea, fetching $20 per pound or more in markets and considerably more in restaurants.
There seems to be a disconnect somewhere. The U.S. sushi market has skyrocketed over the last two decades, now accounting for 22 percent of the restaurant market with an estimated worth to the U.S. economy of $25 billion. But again, most of the fish sold are imported, and therein lies the real problem.
Until we do a better job of educating the general seafood-consuming public and increasing domestic demand, little will change.
Too many boats
Let’s go back to another of the perceived problems: too many boats on the water. There may be some credibility to the claim as HMS permits have increased over the past 5 years. However, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs U.S. fisheries, requires that U.S. fishermen have equal access to the resource. No one sector of the fishery - commercial, recreational, harpoon, longline, hand-gear - is, or should be given precedence.
Meanwhile there’s a growing contention that the increased catch is “the part-timers’ fault.” Let’s address this one head-on.
Few if any fishermen make their full, annual income fishing for bluefin tuna. Just look at a list of the people considered to be the most serious “full-time” or “real” tuna fishermen. Their occupations include: lobsterman, groundfisherman, scalloper, real estate agent, rental property manager, auto service repair, airline pilot, charter boat operator, engineer, merchant mariner, builder, transportation, securities broker... the list goes on.
Where do you draw the line? How do you decide who gets to fish and who doesn’t? And can you if excluding certain individuals is a direct violation of Magnuson-Stevens?
Perhaps instead of excluding anglers, we could discourage them. Getting involved in tuna fishing is not an inexpensive undertaking. Boats, tackle, fuel aren’t cheap, but clearly that expense is not enough to deter many anglers. The required safety equipment is another considerable expense, the cost of a raft, survival suits and EPIRB amounting to several thousand dollars. Some captains bite the bullet and comply while others simply sidestep requirements. Rather than new regulations, perhaps we simply need better enforcement of existing ones.
Magnuson-Stevens requires that all anglers have access to the resource, but it doesn’t say anything about free access. Under the U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA Fisheries regulates all commercial fisheries. The cost of licenses and permits in some fisheries can be quite expensive. Meanwhile, an HMS permit to fish commercially for bluefin tuna is less than the price of a 3-pack of hooks. We’re virtually giving away permits. Perhaps a significant permit fee increase would be a disincentive to casual fishermen.
Managing bluefin tuna fisheries is a complicated business with a lot of components. Managers must balance protecting the resource and ensuring it remains sustainable with accommodating various user groups and constituents. Meanwhile, anglers from different categories quibble over quota: north versus south, commercial versus recreational, long-line versus general category.
Perhaps if we all stopped pointing fingers of accusation at one another, sat down and looked at things objectively, identified the real rather than the perceived problems, we could come up with some legitimate solutions.
Bob Humphrey is a Maine representative to the NOAA Fisheries Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Advisory Panel.