(Jeremy C. Fox / Boston.com)
Atlantic bluefin tuna, on a decline earlier in the 2000s, were more plentiful in 2010 than in any other year in memory, local fishermen say. So why, they ask, is the federal government still taking seriously a petition to add the bluefin to the endangered species list?
The very possibility that the government could designate the species as endangered is a bitter irony, they said, and would be laughable if that designation weren’t so dangerous to the anglers' way of life.
More than 100 commercial, charter and recreational fishers gathered in the North End recently to voice their opposition to the petition at a listening session held by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The standing-room-only crowd packed the large second-floor room at the Mariner’s House on North Street and spilled into the hallway beyond, while nearly 50 men took the microphone to speak over the course of the three-hour-plus meeting.
In sometimes salty language, the fishermen protested the notion of bluefin being endangered, describing it as “baffling,” “absurd,” “ludicrous,” “a farce” and “madness.”
They said the population of bluefin has exploded in recent years, in part because of tight quotas imposed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. They said the United States is the most conservative nation on the commission, putting quotas on American fishers that are far more restrictive than those of other countries.
The federal government accepted the petition based on data from ICCAT’s 2008 bluefin stock assessment shortly before the organization released its 2010 assessment — which showed an increase in bluefin populations.
Kimberly Damon-Randall , coordinator for the Proactive Conservation Program at the Northeast Regional Office of the National Marine Fisheries Service, led the listening session and struggled to keep speakers focused on their observations of bluefin populations.
Many stepped outside the issue of population size — the only government-approved topic of discussion — to express frustration with the petition itself. Some questioned the motives or knowledge of the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the petition and whose distant location was several times a topic of derision.
Under US law, any person or organization can petition the secretaries of Commerce or the Interior to list a species under the Endangered Species Act.
While the potential economic impact of halting bluefin fishing was also supposed to be excluded from the discussion, several fishermen raised the issue, and most were clearly guided by that concern.
“It’s just an attack by special interest groups that want to stop my way of living,” said one man, who described himself as a commercial fisherman in Cape Cod Bay for 30 years.
The fishermen spoke out against data-collection methods based on the number of fish caught by commercial anglers. They described the methods as hopelessly inadequate, capturing only a small portion of the total bluefin population and ignoring the number of bluefin caught by recreational fishermen.
“The idea that bluefin tuna are being counted by the numbers that are either harpooned or impaled on a hook is kind of like counting the number of bald eagles that end up crashing into mailboxes,” said Kevin Alex Friedman, a commercial fisher on the Martha’s Vineyard-based boat Sharon Ann. “These fish are not only greatly abundant, but let’s remember they’re a highly migratory species. They think nothing of moving 100 miles in a day.”
The men suggested that the government should be using more thorough methods of collecting data on fish populations, including aerial surveys, sonar and tagging fish that are caught and released. They conceded that there were fewer large fish living close to the Massachusetts shore than in the past, owing to shifts in the adult fishes' feeding areas to colder areas farther north, where there were more bait fish for them to feed on.
“The bait that used to be south of Nantucket is now east of Nantucket, and the bait that used to be east of Nantucket is now up in the bay and so on,” said Robert DaCosta, who runs a charter boat off Nantucket called the Albacore. “That’s why you see these bigger fish up in Canada, because that’s where all the herring are. If these people want to do something to save the bluefin fishery, why don’t they put the herring on the endangered species list, and maybe we’ll have bluefins again to catch?”
But according to the fishermen, the waters off the coast are packed with juvenile fish, so many “you can walk on them,” according to one man, who said he’d been fishing in these waters for 30 years.
Others noted that bluefin are harder to catch than in the past, in part because rising dogfish populations have made it impossible to catch tuna by chumming the waters — throwing fish parts and blood into the surface waters to draw fish up — because the dogfish will arrive and eat the chum before any tuna can be attracted.
Patrick Paquette, state chairman of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, said he’d spoken to a variety of fisherman from different backgrounds and experience levels, and all agreed that the bluefin is currently abundant.
“The one thing that this petition has done — it has united groups that hate each other,” Paquette said. “Let’s get honest. The harpooners and the trollers and the charter captains and the professional commercial fishermen and the [recreational] guys don’t agree on nothing when it comes to managing the species on a normal day. But we all agree that this petition is off the hook and insane.”
The Jan. 6 meeting was the second of five listening sessions along the East Coast, following one the previous day at Sandy Hook, N.J. The National Marine Fisheries Service will accept testimony on the issue until Jan. 14, and must publish its final determination by May 24, 2011.
Email Jeremy C. Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org.