In conservation move, feds impose new rules to save bluefin tunas from being overfished

Associated Press

New restrictions are being placed on fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic coast to protect the prized bluefin tuna species from being overfished.

On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the rules for commercial fishing vessels. The rules take effect in January.

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Under them, fishermen would be barred from the practice of using miles-long fishing lines in areas of the Gulf and off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, during certain sensitive periods for Atlantic bluefin tuna. Anglers still may catch the tuna using other types of gear.

Although bluefin are not considered an endangered species by federal scientists, their future is viewed with concern and they are the focus of international conservation efforts. The fish — giants weighing hundreds of pounds and measuring up to 6 feet long — sell for thousands of dollars, mostly to feed the worldwide market for sushi.

Tougher rules in U.S. waters come only days after an international body that regulates bluefin tuna harvests met in Italy and raised the quotas for fishermen in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The move dismayed conservationists who are worried the move puts recovery efforts at risk.

Between April and May, long-line fishing will be restricted in large areas of the Gulf. In the western Atlantic, scientists believe the species spawns primarily in the Gulf and the Florida Straits between April and June.

Long-line restrictions will go into effect off the coast of North Carolina between December and April. Those waters are a feeding ground.

Many tuna die when they are snagged on those fishing lines. Making matters worse, dead tuna often are thrown back into the ocean when they're reeled in by fishermen who are actually seeking other species, such as swordfish and yellowfin tuna. Fishermen now will be required to count bluefin tuna they catch on their long-lines against quotas limiting how much fish they can harvest.

Fishermen see the rules — which include more monitoring and reporting on what they catch — as harmful.

"They've put so many fishermen out of business," lamented Greg Abrams, a 56-year-old seafood dealer and boat owner in Panama City, Florida. He viewed the restrictions as over the top, unfairly targeting Gulf fishermen and leaving untouched the steady trade in bluefin tuna fishing in Mexican waters.

Conservationists hailed the rules as striking the right mix, helping conserve the species while keeping fishermen working.

"This is a balanced solution to the problem, a good balance," said Tom Wheatley, conservation manager for the Pew Charitable Trusts, an environmental group that pressed for the new rules.