Campaign at a Glance
For too long, Atlantic bluefin tuna, blue marlin, sailfish, and sharks have been caught and killed by surface longlines in the Gulf of Mexico and western Atlantic Ocean. This wasteful fishing gear poses a significant threat to these and other rare and beautiful species of marine animals.
A decades-old problem
Surface longlines have been used commercially in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean since the 1960s. This gear consists of hundreds of baited hooks suspended from lines that stretch up to 40 miles. Fishermen use this method to catch swordfish, yellowfin tuna, and other tunas, but the indiscriminate use of the equipment also catches and kills more than 80 species of nontarget marine animals. These include endangered sea turtles, hard-fighting game fish such as white marlin, and severely depleted western Atlantic bluefin tuna.
Bluefin in particular face a significant challenge because the surface longline fleet in the western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico continues to exceed its annual bluefin quota. This unintended catch is particularly concerning in the Gulf of Mexico, the only known spawning ground for western Atlantic bluefin tuna. Although regulations have provided partial relief for some ocean wildlife through such changes as gear modifications, surface longlines continue to accidentally catch and kill significant numbers of undersized, nontarget, and protected species.
An additional threat
In 2010, the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history exacerbated the negative environmental impacts of surface longlines. The spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico and continued through the peak of the bluefin spawning season. It also coincided with the spawning seasons for blue and white marlin and sailfish and degraded the habitat for several shark species including the scalloped hammerhead. Scientists will study the impacts of this environmental disaster for years to come, but it’s clear that minimizing controllable threats to these marine animals will strengthen their chances for survival.
Simply modifying surface longlines, as some have proposed, won’t fix this long-standing problem. But real solutions are close at hand for Atlantic bluefin tuna. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can:
- Close the Gulf of Mexico to surface longlining to protect spawning bluefin tuna.
- Support the transition by fishermen from surface longlines to more selective fishing gear.
- Reduce bluefin mortality in the western Atlantic by enforcing a firm annual limit on the incidental catch of bluefin for the entire surface longline fleet.
- Improve monitoring of the surface longline fleet.