Bluefin tuna are incredible fish, and have ruled the top of the food chain in the Northern Atlantic Ocean for ages.
Atlantic bluefin tuna can live up to 40 years, migrate across all oceans, swimming thousands of miles a year between spawning and breeding grounds, and can dive deeper than 3,000 feet. According to the World Wildlife Fund, they are also tremendous predators from the moment they hatch, with the sharpest vision of any bony fish.
Tragically, these creatures are not immune to threats posed by overfishing.
Of the three species bluefin tuna, the Atlantic is the largest and most endangered, and close to population collapse. According to the Ocean River Institute, the western Atlantic bluefin tuna population has declined 82% since 1970. Scientists estimate that there are only 41,000 reproductively mature bluefin tuna left in the western Atlantic.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported in 2010 that seven of the 23 commercially fished tuna species, including bluefin, northern albacore, bigeye and yellowfin, are overfished or depleted. An additional nine species were re on the brink of being overfished at the time. Meanwhile, the boats seeking these tuna are responsible for more hooks and nets in the water than any other fishery.
“Since World War II, overfishing, including illegal fishing, facilitated by high-tech fishing techniques and ballooning fishing capacity, has brought Atlantic Bluefin Tuna precariously close to collapse,” maintains Sailors for the Sea. “The continuing increase in demand for bluefin tuna on the lucrative sushi market has fueled increased catches, while driving this magnificent species toward severe depletion.”
As the WWF reports, most catches of the Atlantic bluefin tuna are taken from the Mediterranean Sea, currently the most important bluefin tuna fishery in the world.
Over the last decade, legislation and federal rule changes have further eroded protections for the Atlantic Bluefin tuna.
In 2020 the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lifted restrictions on areas where Atlantic bluefin tuna were once safe from fishing along the Northeastern Atlantic coast, as well as weakened rules that lessened incidents of bluefin tuna bycatch in the Gulf of Mexico.
Non-profits Healthy Gulf and the Turtle Island Restoration Network have filed a lawsuit against the NMFS, NOAA, and the Department of Commerce challenging the removal of the Northeastern US Closed Area at Cape Hatteras and the shortening of the Gulf of Mexico Gear Restricted Area. Their lawsuit is fighting for two important measures that could protect the Atlantic bluefin tuna which, if action is not taken soon, may disappear completely.
Some anticipate the world’s entire fishing industry facing catastrophic collapse by 2048.
Amanda Nickson, director of Global Tuna Conservation at the Pew Charitable Trusts, told Quartz that action must also be taken within the next two years to prevent the disappearance of the Atlantic bluefin tuna’s Pacific cousin, which has withered to 2.6% of its former population.
“Beyond tuna, a host of other marine life—grouper, red snapper, Maine lobster, goldeye, and eel—are also at serious risk,” Saveur reports. “That’s not to mention the plethora of other sea life, ranging from sharks to dolphins to squid. According to the WWF report, the world’s global fishing fleet is two to three times larger than what its oceans can support, and as a result, 53% of our fisheries are already fully exploited, with another 32% completely depleted or recovering from depletion.”
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