The Gulf of Mexico provides important habitat for such rare and beautiful marine species as Atlantic bluefin tuna, blue marlin, white marlin, sailfish, and leatherback sea turtles. Their dependence on the Gulf of Mexico exposes them to a common threat—surface longline fishing.
A Wasteful Fishing Practice
Surface longlines have caused significant environmental problems in the Gulf of Mexico since they were introduced commercially in the 1960s. The gear consists of hundreds of baited hooks suspended from a heavy monofilament mainline suspended in the water column by buoys. Commercial fishermen set out surface longlines that average 30 miles in length to catch yellowfin tuna and swordfish. Unfortunately, this equipment is known to catch and kill more than 80 types of non-target animals including depleted blue and white marlin, sharks, leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles, and bluefin tuna. Bluefin face a particular threat because the Gulf of Mexico is the only known spawning area for the western population of this important fish.
Longlining even wastes the desired species. For every legal swordfish kept, more than one illegal, juvenile swordfish is discarded. Of those thrown back, only 23 percent survive.
Imperiled Ocean Wildlife
Among the most remarkable animals on the planet, bluefin can reach 1,500 pounds, complete trans-Atlantic migrations and dive to depths of more than 3,000 feet. Unfortunately, overfishing, spurred by the growing demand for sushi, has severely depleted their numbers. Scientists estimate that the population of western Atlantic bluefin has declined by 64 percent since 1970. Sharks, blue marlin, sailfish, sea turtles, and other marine life harmed by Gulf surface longlines have also experienced dramatic declines.
International Bluefin Tuna Management
The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), with 48 member nations, is responsible for managing Atlantic bluefin. Unfortunately, ICCAT set unsustainably high fishing limits for decades. Rather than rebuilding, bluefin populations remain severely depleted. Now, to help ensure the long-term survival of this valuable resource, swift, decisive action by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is needed to protect the bluefin’s spawning ground.
Earlier Protective Efforts
NMFS has enacted regulations to reduce harmful interactions between surface longlines and bluefin and other non-target ocean wildlife such as sea turtles, marlin, and sharks. These measures, some in effect since 1982, included a prohibition on targeting bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico, bait restrictions, and, recently, mandates on hook shape, strength, and size. Even with those regulations, the surface longlines still catch and kill far too many undersized, unwanted, and protected marine animals. In fact, this equipment catches more bluefin tuna now than before 1982. Since reproductively mature bluefin represent a substantial number of these mortalities, this incidental catch poses a serious threat to the long-term survival of western Atlantic bluefin population.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill exacerbated this decades-old problem. The spill occurred in the only known spawning ground of western Atlantic bluefin and persisted through the peak of the spawning season. Toxic oil also spread into essential habitat for blue and white marlin, sharks, sea turtles, and other marine life. As the short- and long-term impacts of the spill have become apparent, the state and federal agencies tasked with restoring the Gulf continue to look for solutions that will benefit both the environment and the Gulf’s economy.
Surprisingly, the Deepwater Horizon disaster may have provided a potential solution to the problem of surface longline bycatch. Oil spill restoration funds could help pay to transition surface longline fishermen to more selective fishing gear that could protect spawning bluefin and other ocean wildlife, while keeping fishermen in business. The Pew Environment Group is working with commercial and recreational fishermen and conservation groups to encourage state and federal agencies to phase out surface longline fishing for yellowfin tuna and swordfish in the Gulf of Mexico in favor of more selective gear. The change to less harmful methods will halt the wasteful killing of non-target marine life such as bluefin and sailfish, and maintain fishermen’s access to yellowfin tuna and swordfish.
TAKE ACTION TODAY
Please visit www.PewEnvironment.org/GulfTuna to tell Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to facilitate the switch to more selective gears in the Gulf of Mexico.