Thursday, July 2, 2009
Gale Winds of Change
The US government is considering sweeping changes to the way we manage bluefin tuna domestically. The stated goal is to provide US fishermen with greater opportunity to harvest the ICCAT quota while balancing the need to end overfishing of the Gulf of Mexico-spawning, western Atlantic population by 2010 and rebuild the population by 2019.
2003 was the last year that the US caught (or exceeded, as the case may be) its full quota. Since then, we've caught just 15-69% of our quota. Less than 25% of the commercial quota was caught in 2008. Speculations abound about why US landings are at such a low level, ranging from a decreased prey base to decline of the population. Unfortunately, there is a lot of evidence to support the latter.
The new management options being considered are too numerous to mention (click here for the full suite of options), but most of them lift restrictions on harvest to increase catch. The most alarming proposal is to lower the commercial minimum size from 73" to 65". There is extensive scientific evidence that changing the targeted size classes of exploited living natural resources can change the genetic structure and life history of the species. In written comments submitted to NMFS earlier this week, TAG expressed opposition to the proposal to lower the minimum size.
Another concerning proposal is to eliminate the daily bag limit in the commercial handgear fishery. Fishermen can now land up to 3 fish per day. While catching the limit is rare, allowing unlimited retention could be disastrous in a hot fishery, as an entire cohort of fish could be caught due to bluefin schooling behavior. This potential glut of tuna landings would also flood the market, resulting in lower prices and lower profits.
The same (or stricter, in reality) regulations that are now under consideration for weakening resulted in full utilization or overharvest of the US quota up until 2004. Lifting restrictions on the fishery now could have the opposite result of the stated goal of quota utilization. Increased harvest could lead to further population declines, which would lead to even lower catches in the future. And the likelihood of ending overfishing and rebuilding western bluefin tuna would be blown away on the gale winds of change. The good news is that we can rebuild western bluefin by 2019 if we use the best available science to manage them.