Groups seek endangered species status for Pacific bluefin tuna

SAN FRANCISCO — A group of petitioners have requested the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and U.S. Department of Commerce to have Pacific bluefin tuna protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The petition was filed on June 20 with the Secretary of Commerce and included the Center for Biological Diversity, The Ocean Foundation, Earthjustice, Center for Food Safety, Defenders of Wildlife, Greenpeace, Mission Blue, Recirculating Farms Coalition, The Safina Center, SandyHook SeaLife Foundation, Sierra Club, Turtle Island Restoration Network, WildEarth Guardians and sustainable-seafood purveyor Jim Chambers.

“The Pacific bluefin tuna population has declined more than 97 percent since fishing began, largely because countries have failed to reduce fishing enough to protect the iconic species, a luxury item on sushi menus,” according to a statement released by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Petitioners claim most of the bluefin tuna harvests today are catches of juvenile members of the species.

“Almost all Pacific bluefin tuna harvested today are caught before reproducing, leaving few to mature and propagate the species,” the Center for Biological Diversity statement pointed out. “In 2014 the Pacific Bluefin tuna population produced the second-lowest number of young fish seen since 1952.

“Just a few adult age classes of Pacific bluefin tuna exist, and these will soon disappear due to old age. Without young fish to mature into the spawning stock to replace the aging adults, the future is grim for Pacific bluefin unless immediate steps are taken to halt this decline,” the Center for Biological Diversity stated.

The official endangered species petition stated overfishing of the species has caused the current Pacific bluefin tuna population to be about 2.6 percent of its unfished size.

“The population’s severe decline, in combination with inadequate regulatory mechanisms to end overfishing or reverse the decline, has pushed Pacific bluefin tuna to the edge of extinction,” the formal petition stated.

Pacific bluefin tuna at local landings apparently peaked in 1935, according to the petition, when more than 47,000 metric tons of the species were caught. However landings only reported between 11,325 and 29,174 metric tons of Pacific bluefin tuna during the past decade, the petition stated.

At least four agencies manage or oversee the Pacific bluefin tuna fishery: Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) in the eastern Pacific; International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like Species in the North Pacific Ocean (ISC); and, NMFS within U.S. waters.

ISC, according to the petition, “conducts stock assessments and oversees other Pacific bluefin science efforts.”

The complete petition can be viewed here.

Gaining endangered species status could take up to 12 months once the petition process has begun, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Fisheries.

A species is determined as endangered if it meets five criteria. The criteria, according to NOAA Fisheries, are: “present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; over-utilization of the species for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; disease or predation; inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; and, other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.”

“The U.S. has done nothing more to regulate commercial Pacific bluefin fishing than implement inadequate international management recommendations, and the recreational fishery is controlled by a bag limit that does not actually constrain overall catch,” the endangered species petition stated. “Existing regulations are insufficient to abate the continued decline of this species or end overfishing, let alone promote recovery to healthy levels.

“According to the 2016 stock assessment, existing management has just a 0.1% chance of rebuilding Pacific bluefin tuna to healthy levels by 2024,” the petition continued.

Other potential threats include pollution, aquaculture and climate change, according to petitioners.

“Pacific bluefin are also compromised by threats to their habitat, including water and plastic pollution, oil and gas development, renewable energy projects, large-scale aquaculture of other species, forage fish depletion and climate change,” the petition stated. “Pacific bluefin aquaculture is also growing, both for ranched wild-caught fish and farmed captive-spawned eggs. These practices put additional pressure on the wild Pacific bluefin tuna population and its prey.”

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