Tuna's Slow Death: Feds Refuse to Protect the Bluefin (Again)

The government isn't putting the fish on the endangered species list—even though most evidence suggests it should

When government PR folks want to limit media coverage of a decision, they commonly announce it late in the day after deadlines have passed for media outlets. If they really don't want us to know about something, they wait until as late as possible on a Friday.

That this news release came on a Friday before a long weekend tells you everything you know about how the officials at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) really feel about their recent announcement that bluefin tuna did not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

"Based on careful scientific review, we have decided the best way to ensure the long-term sustainability of bluefin tuna is through international cooperation and strong domestic fishery management," said Eric Schwaab, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA's Fisheries Service.

One wonders what science they consulted. The Union for the Conservation of Nature, the world's oldest environmental network, has declared the Atlantic bluefin "critically endangered." In 2010, the United States delegation to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species apparently thought there was enough science to come out strongly to have bluefin listed on Appendix I, meaning that international trade would be banned. That effort was shot down by the intense lobbying efforts of Japan.

This time, there is no convenient international scapegoat.

Studies show that the western Atlantic bluefin population, which swims in American waters and falls under NOAA's jurisdiction, has fallen by more than 80 percent since 1970, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Matters were made worse by last year's Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the breeding grounds for western Atlantic bluefin. According to some estimates, 20 percent of the tuna born there last year died. "The Obama administration turned a blind eye to the staggering declines of Atlantic bluefin tuna in recent years," said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release.

Instead of taking action, NOAA has said it wants to wait to make a decision until it analyzes the effects of the most recent catch limits set by the International Commission on the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT). Cynics claim&mdashlwith reason—that the organization's acronym should stand for the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna. That organization has overseen the drastic decline of tunas, and each year it persists in setting catch limits above what its own scientists say is necessary to stave off extinction.

Although NOAA failed to do what science and commonsense say it should have done, it did list bluefin as a "species of concern" under the Endangered Species Act. This places the species on a watch list for concerns about its status. NOAA also said it would review this decision by early 2013, "when more information will be available about the effects of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill, as well as a new stock assessment from the scientific arm of ICCAT."

One problem: Many scientists say that by 2013 it might be too late for the bluefin.

Image: Tony Gentile/Reuters