WASHINGTON (CN) – The western Atlantic bluefin tuna does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, despite a decline in catch of the highly prized fish from a 1964 peak of 18, 671 tons to just over 1,900 tons in 2009.
Bluefin tuna is considered to be the world’s premium species for sushi-grade fish, and a large percentage of the domestic catch is exported to Asian countries.
The agency’s decision is a late response to a petition to list the species submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity.
The petition cited chronic overfishing as the primary reason for the decline of the tuna. After a 90-day review, the agency determined that the petition contained sufficient data to warrant a 12-month review.
Last week, the Center announced that it intended to sue the agency for not meeting the one year deadline for determining if the species warranted protection under the act.
While that intended suit is now moot, Catherine Kilduff, a staff attorney at the Center said that they are considering whether to file a new petition for listing, challenge the decision in court, or wait until 2013 when the agency said it will revisit the decision.
Kilduff was critical of the decision saying, “The Obama administration today turned a blind eye to the staggering declines of Atlantic bluefin tuna in recent years. There’s a bounty on the head of every bluefin tuna, which are threatened by rampant illegal fishing overseas and longline hooks that pluck them from their Gulf of Mexico spawning grounds. We’re dooming this species to extinction without additional protection.”
According to the agency, however, current recreational and commercial fishing does not “represent a substantial risk to the long-term persistence of the species.”
Also, the agency believes that existing regulatory mechanisms such as ICCAT protect the species, saying in the listing decision, “Atlantic bluefin tuna fisheries are closely managed by various regulatory mechanisms, and current total allowable catch levels are projected to result in increased population levels … as long as there is a high degree of compliance.”
The original petition to list the bluefin also argued that western Atlantic population, which spawns in the Gulf of Mexico, would be devastated by the Deep Water Horizon oil spill.
The agency said that until ongoing studies on the environmental impact of that spill are completed, there is insufficient data available to prove that the tuna have been damaged. Even assuming a 50 percent mortality for adult tuna in the Gulf of Mexico during the spill, the agency calculates that the impact on the risk of extinction is negligible.
The agency’s report, which relies heavily on research from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, argued that the rate of decline in catch has stabilized in recent decades and that some of that decline resulted from quota’s imposed by the ICCAT to conserve the species.
I CCAT has faced criticism from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the National Marine Fisheries Services, for ignoring ICCAT’s own scientific reports suggesting that the spawning population of the tuna is nowhere near the size it needs to be to sustain the species.
In 2009, in response to overfishing of the eastern Atlantic population of the bluefin, the agency proposed a 5 per cent reduction of domestic catch of the western Atlantic bluefin, arguing that the two populations were so interconnected that quotas needed to be lowered for the western population to compensate for the collapse of the eastern population.
The United States led a bid to ban international trade in bluefin, but the effort was scuttled by the largest consumer of the species, Japan, at the ICCAT conference in Doha, Qatar in 2010. Even if the ban had been passed, the ICCAT conference relies on the voluntary adherence of its members and has virtually no independent enforcement mechanism.