NMFS bluefin tuna rules theaten to force US to abandon tuna quota to other ICCAT countries
SEAFOOD.COM NEWS [Commercial Fisheries News] April 15, 2009 - by
Lorelei Stevens - GLOUCESTER, MA - Angered over the very real prospect that US quota will be reallocated to other countries, bluefin tuna fishermen from all over New England packed a meeting room at the National Marine Fisheries Service's (NMFS) new Northeast Region headquarters in March.
Their message was as clear as it was forceful: NMFS must immediately eliminate all restrictions that prevent fishermen from harvesting the bluefin quota share allocated to the US by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).
'Please ease effort controls on bluefin tuna so we don't lose our quota,' said Tom DePersia of Marshfield, MA. 'That's it in a nutshell.'
The turnout of at least 125 people was prompted by a proposed rule issued in mid-February for the 2009 fishing year that basically set the same constraints that have governed the fishery in previous years: daily retention limits; restricted fishing days; a 73' minimum size for the commercial categories; and seasonal subquotas.
But this is no ordinary year. The US has failed to come even close to harvesting its share of the western Atlantic quota since 2004. As a result, ICCAT took several actions last November to set the stage for taking tonnage away from the US in 2010 and giving it to other countries, including some nations that have no historical bluefin fishery (see CFN January 2009).
'The proposed specifications are a recipe for disaster,' said Rich Ruais at the March 4 hearing. Ruais is now the executive director of three organizations Ð East Coast Tuna Association, Blue Water Fishermen's Association, which represents swordfish longliners, and North Shore Community Tuna Association Ð and is a member of the US delegation to ICCAT and an adviser to NMFS on highly migratory species (HMS).
'The US doesn't have the luxury of leaving quota in the water. At ICCAT, it's 'use it or lose it,'' Ruais said. 'This is an emergency. If you don't fix this, you will see a loss of quota not just for the people in this room but for future generations.'
Ruais explained how stringent NMFS regulations on the swordfish fishery have made it impossible for American boats to harvest the US quota since 1997.
As a result, he said, 'ICCAT and the US have given away over 5,000 metric tons of US swordfish quota over the last four years to countries that don't have nearly the conservation ethic or record that is so strong and clear here.'
Andy Baler of Nantucket Fish Company wondered what NMFS's motivation possibly could be for continuing to limit bluefin harvests.
'It doesn't seem like the US government is holding true for the US people. NMFS seems to have the attitude of 'Leave it in the ocean. It's conservation.' But ICCAT says if you don't use it, you lose it,' he said. 'There should be no effort controls at all. We need to catch the quota in 2009. This is a US resource we're talking about. We do more conservation than any other country in the world.'
Mark Murray-Brown of the NMFS HMS Division in Gloucester, who, along with staffer Sarah McLaughlin, ran the public hearing, told the crowd that NMFS was beginning to understand how upset fishermen were with the proposed rule.
He went over a list of suggested changes that had been offered by industry people who had contacted his office and by participants in the Feb. 18-19 meeting of the NMFS HMS Advisory Panel. Many of these changes also were raised by the dozens of fishermen who spoke at the public hearing.
Among the suggestions were:
Remove the maximum limit of three fish per day for the general category;
Drop the 73' minimum size for the general category to 65''and allow the retention of one bluefin per day between 65' and 73''for both the general and harpoon categories;
Allow for multi-day trips so vessels that steam farther east, where the bluefin have been seen in significant numbers in recent years, can land enough fish to make it worth their while;
Make the commercial fishery year-round or extend the season beyond the end of January;
Remove the two-fish limit on large mediums (73'-81') for the harpoon category;
Allow charter/headboat category vessels to use harpoons and to fish commercially and recreationally on the same day;
Eliminate the trophy fishery in the angling category and increase the angling retention limit to two bluefin 27'-73' or one school (27'-<47') and one large school/small medium (47'-<73' fish per day; and
Change the incidental /target catch requirements for the longline category.
Ruais said that the last proposal was raised at the HMS Advisory Panel meeting and that even panel members who have not supported liberalizing the bluefin bycatch in the past did this time. The panel asked NMFS to analyze allowing longliners to retain up to five bluefin tuna as incidental catch tied to specific amounts of directed swordfish catch.
ECTA President Joey Jancewicz said, 'Relax the rules on the longliners. They're not going to target these fish. Let them keep what they take.'
Throughout the hearing, several fishermen said they felt like no matter what they said, NMFS wouldn't listen to them.
Murray-Brown tried to explain that NMFS was limited to making changes in the final rule, which is due out by the end of May at the latest, only in those areas that were specifically addressed in the proposed rule. For example, he said it would not be possible to reduce the commercial minimum size limit to 65' in the final rule. Doing so would entail a full regulatory action, which would take nine or 10 months at a minimum.
'Changing retention limits is easy because it's in the rulemaking,' Murray-Brown said of the proposed rule. 'A size limit change isn't.'
At this point, Peter Weiss, long-time president of the General Category Tuna Association, addressed the crowd, telling them that they needed to take action above the level of the NMFS regional office.
'You can expound all you want. It will fall on deaf ears,' Weiss said. 'You need to organize. You need to go political. You need to go behind the scenes. It's the only way.'
Weiss said that people in the bluefin industry, who have had plenty of internal disagreements over the years, need to put aside their differences and create one organization that 'you all can contribute to.'
Stew Holtz, a member of the North Shore Community Tuna Association, agreed.
'We have to bond together,' he said. 'There is a mix of people in this room we haven't seen in years.'
Ruais said work had already begun to create the new group.
Murray-Brown closed the hearing by reassuring the still-packed house that the tremendous concern expressed by the industry would be communicated to NMFS leadership.
'We will pass on the message to others about the outrage we heard here that there will be a quota raid,' he said. 'They will know that there is a palpable fear that it's going to happen.'