Populations of Bluefin Tuna have sharply declined in the Atlantic Ocean. (Photo: Paul Murray, Courtesy of Large Pelagics Research Center)
The bluefin tuna population in the Atlantic is protected, but they are still caught accidentally by long-line fishermen. Carl Safina of the Blue Ocean Institute tells host Steve Curwood that planned conservation proposals from the National Marine Fisheries Service aren't tough enough to protect the population.
CURWOOD: There are nowhere near as many of the huge magnificent Blue Fin Tuna as there used to be off the shores of America, but perhaps rules proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service may help their population recover. For an assessment, we called up Carl Safina. He's President of the Blue Ocean Institute who's both a fisherman and a strong voice for conservation - Carl, welcome back to Living on Earth!
SAFINA: Hi there, thanks for having me.
CURWOOD: Let’s go to the basics here. Why are bluefin tuna in such as steep population decline right now?
SAFINA: Well, it’s not clear they’re in a steep decline right now, but they’re in a big hole. They sort of have fallen and they can’t get up. In the 1960s boats from Japan went into their breeding grounds in the Gulf of Mexico, and they caught an incredible amount of bluefin tuna there while they were trying to breed. After that, other boats caught the babies for canning. So you have the
Japanese taking the breeders, you had the canners taking the babies. Then in the 70s and the 80s
Americans got into the sushi business, and the population has never recovered from the hole that it went into.
CURWOOD: So talk to me about this plan by the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect the
SAFINA: The idea is to try to have fewer of these bluefin tuna killed on their spawning grounds while they are spawning. People are fishing in there with long lines, which are a long fishing line, about 25 miles long. It has hundreds of baited hooks. They’re allowed to keep a couple of bluefin tuna and other things that they catch, and so they continue to have incentive to be fishing in the breeding area catching these giant tuna with can weigh 1,000 pounds or more, and keep a couple.
They’re extremely lucrative, but they kill others in the process and they discard them because they’re not allowed to keep them. This is a proposal that attempts to improve on the situation.
CURWOOD: 25 miles of long line. What other fish are they catching?
SAFINA: They catch a lot of things they’re not intending to catch, including marlin and sailfish, which they cannot sell - that’s supposed to protect them - but a lot of them get killed anyway. So those populations of some of those marlin are in very, very bad shape. They catch a lot of sharks, they catch sea turtles, in some places they catch a lot of sea birds, and they’re very bad at targeting things well even if they’re fishing for something like, let’s say, swordfish, they can catch a lot of juvenile swordfish that are too small to sell - that come up dead.
CURWOOD: Well, how would these new regulations from the National Marine Fisheries Service help?
SAFINA: It would let them fish there in a smaller area for a shorter amount of the season. So you might say that’s an improvement, or you might say it doesn’t really go far enough.
CURWOOD: In your view?
SAFINA: Not far enough.
SAFINA: Well, because these fish have been in a deep hole for many decades, and I don’t think you should be fishing for a deeply depleted fish while it is trying to reproduce. I think that if any place should be a protection zone where the survivors have finally managed to get themselves to in order to spawn is a place where they should just spawning and not dying.
CURWOOD: How do you police something like this?
SAFINA: You can police it on the fishing ground which is very very difficult to do, or you can police it at the dock, but there’s an incentive to pass fish among boats, there’s incentive to hide fish. There will be people who probably will decide to do some cheating.
CURWOOD: The National Marine Fisheries Service says they’ll have observers and they’ll even have cameras on these boats. How effective might that be?
SAFINA: I think in the US it’s probably pretty effective. The observers and the cameras are for two reasons. One is because there can be incentive to try to bribe the observers and the other is because observers cannot stay awake 24 hours a day or be looking in all directions at once.
CURWOOD: What are the different sides of this argument? What about the folks that say this goes too far?
SAFINA: There are people who say there are plenty of bluefin tuna, there are plenty of those who say they’re recovering well. There are people who say a lot of things, and I think all those things are partly true, but if you compare the number of fish to the number of fish that are supposed to be, it’s vastly fewer than it was when I was a child, and if we could get it back, which could happen in a reasonable amount of time, then you could catch a lot more of them, more sustainably, from a population that is much bigger and recovered from the small population that exists now.
CURWOOD: So what would be the ideal plan for you to regulate the bluefin tuna?
SAFINA: In a perfect world, we would not catch these fish at all for about five years. We would just give them a break and let the young ones grow up, let the big ones spawn, and let the good times roll, and then reassess it and see if we want to resume fishing at that point, and how many we could take.
CURWOOD: If consumers are concerned about this, what should they do?
SAFINA: There are a couple of different levels at which consumers could act on their concern.
One is not eating any bluefin tuna at all. The other thing is to try not to eat animals that are caught with long line fishing gear, and there are a couple of groups - my group Blue Ocean Institute - and the Monterey Bay Aquarium - put out guides to sustainably-caught fish that can help you try to figure out what fish are caught with relatively clean, relatively sustainable techniques from better managed fisheries.
CURWOOD: Carl Safina is the Founder of the Blue Ocean Institute. Thanks for joining me today.
SAFINA: It was a pleasure as always. Thank you.
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