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Flyfishing in Saltwaters Magazine, May/June 2006



An abundance of school bluefin in 2005 mean no school bluefin for 2006.

 Plus, NOAA Fisheries denies petition to close critical bluefin spawning areas.

By Captain John McMurray


In the prior edition of Flyfishing in Saltwaters, we covered the troubling decline of Atlantic bluefin tuna.   Briefly mentioned was last summer’s unusual abundance of school bluefin (15 to 40-pounds) in the near-shore waters between New Jersey and the Gulf of Maine, which provided world-class flyfishing during July and August.  However, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and anglers will be paying for last year’s success in 2006.   


Bluefin are managed through catch quotas established by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).  In November 2002, ICCAT set the annual Total Allowable Catch of Bluefin for the US at 1,489.6 metric tons.  The quota would first become effective in 2003, and continuing in subsequent years until revised by ICCAT.  The 2002 ICCAT recommendation also included a provision that limited mortality of school bluefin to 8% of the overall bluefin quota, calculated on a four-year basis. Estimates of recreational harvest showed that the eight percent cap had been exceeded in both 2003 and 2004.


In March 2005, NOAA Fisheries consulted with the Highly Migratory Species Advisory Panel to identify harvest alternatives for the 2005 school bluefin fishery. At the time, NOAA Fisheries was reviewing its methodology for measuring bluefin harvest in the Large Pelagics Survey.  Some people connected with the fishery believed that the review would culminate in a downward revision of the 2003-04 harvest estimates.  As result of that belief, the HMS Advisory Panel recommended that the entire available school bluefin quota be allocated to the 2005 fishing year, rather than holding some portion of it in reserve for 2006. NOAA Fisheries went along with the Advisory Panel’s advice to take an aggressive approach to the 2005 harvest.  As a result, estimates of the 2005 school bluefin take show that anglers used up virtually all of their  4-year allocation of school bluefin after only 3 years.


What does all this mean?  To put it in the simplest of terms, because of the abundance of near-shore school bluefin in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, and their accessibility to a large number of inshore anglers, we fished through our 2005 and 2006 school bluefin quota in the space of one year.  Therefore, in a proposed rule, issued late in February, NOAA Fisheries stated that no school bluefin would be available for harvest in 2006.


NOAA Fisheries proposes to adjust Angling category retention limits to three “large school” and/or “small medium” BFT (47 inches  to less than 73 inches per vessel per day/trip.) for 2006.  That pretty much takes us flyrod and light tackle folks out of the equation, at least if we intend to boat a fish.  However, while I had assumed that, because the release mortality for warm-blooded pelagics like bluefin is significant, targeting school bluefin would be prohibited, I discovered that I had been mistaken.  I put a call into the Chief of  NOAA Fisheries Highly Migratory Species Division, Margo Schulze-Haugen, who told  me that some language was recently included in the regulations that did allow for a catch and release fishery.  So, the good news is that we are all set for 2006 if the school bluefin decide to show up again, we just can’t keep them.    That obligates us to use adequate tackle, fight them hard and release them quickly, so that we don’t add to the fish that are released only to die.


At least one angling group, along with many in the charter and party boat industry are crying bloody-murder over the fact that they won’t be able to kill school bluefin in 2006.  However, given that the best available science shows that anglers killed two years’ allocation of school tuna during the 2005 season, it makes sense to shut the 2006 fishery down.  Anglers should be willing to give up a few fish for the table to insure that the strong year class we saw last year survives to adulthood.  Leaving what appears to be a young, healthy cohort of the bluefin population intact is the right thing to do for the sake of the species’ future.  NOAA Fisheries acted correctly in that matter, but their continuing failure to do anything to curb the unsustainable mortality of adult bluefin is extremely troubling.


NMFS denies Gulf spawning habitat closure petition. 


A case in point:  In the prior Resource column we discussed, albeit briefly, the recent Earthjustice/Oceana petition to close a large portion of the Gulf of Mexico. The petition recommended a closure of approximately 125,000 square miles of the northern Gulf from April through June.  The designated area has been determined to be a critical spawning zone for the imperiled giant bluefin.   The journal Nature had just published the results of Dr. Barbara Block’s bluefin tuna study, in which she noted the very high level of bluefin discard mortality attributable to the longline fishery in that area.  Given the dire state of the bluefin stock, the documented level of discard mortality and the fact that the mortality and spawning “hotspots” are within US waters, there seemed little reason why the agency shouldn’t institute the needed closures by regulation, and so sharply reduce the number of spawning-age bluefin, which are critical to recovery of the stock, needlessly killed and discarded.  But, as with far too many management decisions affecting our bluefin stocks, NOAA fisheries again sided with the fishing industry and against the fish.


In late December of 2005 Bill Hogarth, Director of NOAA Fisheries, responded to the petition, claiming that the proposed closure would result in a redistribution of fishing effort that would increase bycatch of bluefin tuna, as well as other species such as blue and white marlin, sailfish and sea turtles.  NOAA Fisheries estimated that while the proposed closure would reduce bluefin catches by 21%, without taking into account effort redistribution.   When redistribution of the fleet is added to the calculation, bluefin catches would actually increase by 9%.  Thus, if the agency is to be believed, bluefin would have been worse off as a result of the proposed closure. 

Many anglers and environmentalists believe that NOAA Fisheries’ analysis is deeply flawed, and is merely a way of appeasing a longline industry firmly opposed to any sort of time and area closure.  The agency’s analysis does not reflect the social and economic realities of the commercial fishing business, most particularly the fact that longline boats are not likely to fish other areas due to the added expenses incurred in the prosecution of a more distant fishery.  Furthermore, longline boats are unlikely to move from the Gulf to areas where they would encounter bluefin between April and June, since the majority of the big breeders will be in the Gulf spawning areas during that time—which is why the closures are needed in the first place. The change in bluefin bycatch resulting from closed areas is measurable; the change resulting from any theoretical redistribution of effort is purely speculative.


There may also be a more insidious reason that the time and area closures are being so strongly opposed by the fishing industry.  Longliners fishing the Gulf have been given a bycatch allowance which permits them to keep one bluefin for the first 2000-pounds of fish landed, two for 6000-pounds and three for 30,000 pounds or more.  Because of the value of bluefin on the sushi market, the allowance may have inspired the creation of a de facto directed giant tuna fishery where no such fishery may legally exist. There are plenty of rumors of longline boats going out even before the yellowfin arrive in hopes of getting a few bluefin to sell under the guise of incidental catch. 


The agency itself acknowledges that there is a bycatch problem in the Gulf, but instead of finding solutions, it continues to dwell on what it can’t do, instead of what it can do, to stop the downward spiral of this magnificent fish.  There are so few bluefin in US waters that the existing quotas for medium and giant bluefin can’t be met in places where they previously could easily be filled.  But, instead of imposing stricter limits on recreational and commercial fishermen to reflect the dearth of fish, NOAA Fisheries just reopens other areas to harvest in an attempt to see the US quota filled.  Bluefin tuna are arguably the worst-managed fishery in history.  NOAA Fisheries’ decision to deny the Oceana/Earthjustice petition is merely the latest misstep.  Unfortunately, the bluefin’s decline isn’t going to give the agency much more room for errors.    


There is something you can do.  Public hearings were held in Massachusetts, New York, Maryland and North Carolina, in March but NOAA Fisheries is currently accepting public comment on the proposed Atlantic bluefin tuna rule.  You can find out how to submit your comments at