WASHINGTON (CN) - Thirteen conservation groups and a former National Fisheries biologist petitioned for federal protection for Pacific bluefin tuna, and the marine agency agreed listing may be warranted.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced Tuesday that it will begin a 12-month status review of the iconic fish as the first step in the long process to secure Endangered Species Act protection for the overfished species.
Pacific bluefin tuna, one of three bluefin species, are large powerful fish, growing up to four to six feet long as adults on average, with the largest ever recorded coming in at 9.8 feet long and weighing 990 pounds. They are one of the fastest fish in the ocean, and they are able to make their cross-ocean migration from the Sea of Japan to off the coast of Baja California in as little as 55 days, the agency said. They live an average of 15 years, but some have lived up to 26 years. They are not reproductively mature until they are 3 to 5 years old.
Japan's fishery catches the most bluefin tuna, with Mexico second. The U.S. fishery is a distant fifth after Korea and Taiwan, though in the 1960s and 1970s U.S. fishermen caught up to 15,000 metric tons a year, according to the agency.
These fish spawn off the coast of Japan and a portion of the juveniles make the migration across the ocean. Most of the bluefin caught since 1952, when data collection began, have been juveniles, the agency said, with many fisheries specifically targeting juveniles since the 1990s, which has led to a decrease in spawning adults.
"Scientists are concerned because most of the spawning adults in the Western Pacific appear to be the same age, about 20 years old, and because so many juveniles are now caught that few reach adulthood. Japanese scientists are also observing spawning bluefin in a smaller and smaller area and finding no spawning bluefin where they used to be abundant," the agency said.
The overfishing of juveniles has led to an overall population decrease of 97 percent since commercial fishing began, according the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the conservation group that spearheaded the petition coalition.
The CBD, a frequent petitioner and litigator on behalf of imperiled species, was joined by Earthjustice, Defenders of Wildlife, WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club, Turtle Island Restoration Network, the Ocean Foundation, Center for Food Safety, Greenpeace, Mission Blue, Recirculating Farms Coalition, The Safina Center, SandyHook SeaLife Foundation, and Jim Chambers, a retired NMFS biologist, owner of Prime Seafood sustainable seafood restaurant supply company and member of the Seafood Choices Alliance.
"This is good news for bluefin tuna, which are headed for extinction without more protection. The Endangered Species Act is a powerful tool for bringing vulnerable species back from the brink, and we hope the Fisheries Service gives these magnificent fish the help they need," CBD's Catherine Kilduff said. "We have to find ways to limit overfishing and protect important habitat or we may see the last Pacific bluefin tuna sold off and lost to extinction."
The petition, which asked the agency to list the Pacific bluefin as an endangered species under the ESA, was received on June 20. The agency has one year from the agency's receipt of the petition to finish the status review, which will lead to a proposal to list the tuna if the agency finds that listing is still warranted after a more intensive study.
"This beautiful, high-performance migratory predator is critical to ecosystem balance in the ocean," Mark Spalding, president of The Ocean Foundation, said. "Unfortunately, these fish have no place to hide from mankind's high-tech, long-distance, big-net fishing fleets. It is not a fair fight, and so the Pacific bluefin tuna is losing."
Scientific and commercial information regarding the petitioned action is due by Dec. 12.
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