As bluefin re­cover, a new fight about how to fish for them

The Morning Call - - BUSINESS CYCLE - By Pa­trick Whit­tle

PORT­LAND, Maine — A fed­eral plan that could loosen the rules about fish­ing for one of the most de­bated species in the ocean has at­tracted the at­ten­tion of fish­er­men and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, some of whom fear years of con­ser­va­tion work could be un­done.

Preser­va­tion of the At­lantic bluefin tuna has long been a sub­ject of in­ter­na­tional de­bate, and some­times dis­cord. The gi­ant sushi fish, which oc­ca­sion­ally sell for more than $1 mil­lion and of­ten weigh sev­eral hun­dred pounds, are at a frac­tion of his­tor­i­cal pop­u­la­tion lev­els but have shown pos­i­tive signs in re­cent years.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment is con­sid­er­ing some changes to the way the fish are man­aged. The Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion has said some of the changes would give fish­er­men who use long­lines, a method of fish­ing used to catch large fish, more flex­i­bil­ity by in­creas­ing their amount of open fish­ing area, in­clud­ing in the Gulf of Mex­ico.

The Gulf of Mex­ico is a crit­i­cal spawn­ing area for bluefin, and parts of it are closed down to long­lin­ers in the spring to pro­tect the fish.

Re­open­ing it to fish­ing could jeop­ar­dize the bluefin stock in U.S. wa­ters and be­yond, said Shana Miller, se­nior of­fi­cer for in­ter­na­tional fish­eries con­ser­va­tion with the Ocean Foun­da­tion.

“It would in­crease mor­tal­ity,” Miller said. “It bog­gles the mind why they’re choos­ing to do this.”

Long­lin­ers aren’t al­lowed to tar­get bluefin tuna, but they are al­lowed to keep some if they catch them ac­ci­den­tally. The po­ten­tial rule change would al­low long­lin­ers to op­er­ate in more ter­ri­tory where bluefin spawn, po­ten­tially tak­ing more of them as ac­ci­den­tal by­catch, Miller said.

It would also po­ten­tially open up ter­ri­tory off Cape Hat­teras, North Carolina, and off the North­east­ern states.

Open­ing up the ter­ri­tory is on the ta­ble in part be­cause of dif­fi­cul­ties long­lin­ers have had with catch­ing sword­fish, a more abun­dant species that has high eco­nomic value, said Jen­nie Lyons, a NOAA Fish­eries spokes­woman. NOAA is tak­ing com­ments about its plan to change the fish­ing rules un­til Sept. 30. Rule changes, if ap­proved, could be­gin next year.

“These ad­just­ments are be­ing pro­posed in light of on­go­ing suc­cesses in re­duc­ing bluefin tuna by­catch in some fish­eries and to ad­dress un­der­har­vests of other species — par­tic­u­larly sword­fish — while con­tin­u­ing to min­i­mize bluefin by­catch,” she said.

The changes would also not im­pact fish­er­men’s quota for bluefin, said Randy Blank­in­ship, chief of NOAA Fish­eries’ At­lantic Highly Mi­gra­tory Species Man­age­ment Di­vi­sion.

Fish­er­men most of­ten bring bluefin to the docks in the coastal New Eng­land states, es­pe­cially Mas­sachusetts and Maine, and North Carolina. Long­line fish­er­men need bet­ter fed­eral rules, be­cause for­eign sword­fish­er­men are fill­ing the void cre­ated by re­stric­tions in the do­mes­tic mar­ket, said Dewey Hemil­right, a long­liner out of North Carolina.

“The U.S. fish­er­man is go­ing down while other coun­tries are ship­ping into our mar­ket­place,” he said.

ROBERT F. BUKATY/AP 2018

A plan from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment could loosen rules about fish­ing bluefin tuna.

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