News Roundup

Jan 8 2013

Pilot program aims to reduce the unintentional bycatch of bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico

The Times-Picayune
Susan Langenhennig
January 08, 2013 at 4:29 PM, updated January 08, 2013 at 10:50 PM

A sustainable seafood luncheon at Gautreau’s restaurant on Monday laid out some of the challenges and possible solutions facing the Gulf of Mexico’s tuna fisheries. The event’s most compelling argument came by plate.

The luncheon featured three courses of yellowfin and bigeye tuna, prepared by Bayona chef de cuisine Brett Duffee, a Mano and La Boca chef Adolfo Garcia and Gautreau’s chef Sue Zemanick. Slices of the thick-fleshed fish appeared as an appetizer with lardo and capers. Tuna belly was poached in olive oil and served with citrus. And bigeye steaks, seared on the outside, rosy on the inside, swam in a light broth with purple fingerling potatoes.

The courses provided a three-part testament to why fresh tuna is prized as a delicacy the world over.

The fish served Monday was caught in the Gulf of Mexico using gear that specifically targets those sustainable tuna species, while reducing the unwanted bycatch of others, such as bluefin tuna, one of the globe’s most in-demand, delicious and depleted fish.

Last weekend, a bluefin sold for a whopping $1.76 million at a Tokyo auction, nearly triple the previous year’s price. That 489-pound fish was caught off the coast of northeastern Japan. The bidding drove up the price to a staggering sum higher than bluefin typically commands the rest of the year.

Still, such big-bucks bidding is disquieting to fisheries scientists and environmentalists who have been keeping an eye on the beleaguered bluefin.

Since 1970, the western stock of bluefin, which spawns in the Gulf of Mexico, has been reduced by 72 percent, said Tom Wheatley, manager of the Pew Environment Group’s Gulf Surface Longline Campaign.

“Yellowfin tuna and swordfish are relatively healthy fisheries, and we want to keep them on our dinner plates and keep local fisherman catching them,” he said. “But bluefin is the poster child of bad fisheries management.”

Author Paul Greenberg illustrated that point in his eye-opening book, “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.”

“By some estimates, there may be only 9,000 of the most ecologically vital megabreeders left in the fish’s North American stock, enough for the entire population of New York to have a final bite (or two) of high-grade otoro sushi,” Greenberg wrote in a 2010 New York Times article adapted from the book.

The 2010 BP oil spill, which occurred in the spring right when the bluefin were spawning in the Gulf, has added another layer of concern for the fish’s future. Bluefin show up in Gulf waters in January and leave by the end of June, Wheatley said.

Targeted commercial fishing of bluefin has been prohibited in the Gulf of Mexico since 1982, but these fish, and other marine species, are caught unintentionally on surface longline gear used by boats out for yellowfin and swordfish.

Surface long lines stretch for an average of 30 miles, dangling hundreds of baited hooks. The gear is an indiscriminate killer, snagging endangered sea turtles, blue and white marlin, sharks and other species.

One hundred metric tons of bluefin tuna is caught on long lines annually in the Gulf of Mexico, Wheatley said.

Switching to gear that’s more selective in its catch is one possible solution. David Kerstetter, a research scientist at Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, Fla., has been working on a pilot program to see if such a switch could be both economical for the fishermen and viable for the environment.

Kerstetter has been working with four Gulf fishing boats - two in Madeira Beach, Fla., and two out of Dulac, La. - to assess the use of “greenstick” and swordfish buoy gear, both designed to have minimal bycatch. Since April, the program has landed more than 19,000 pounds of yellowfin, bigeye tuna and swordfish, “and we haven’t caught a single bluefin during the process,” he said, though the lines have snagged other species.

“Part of the advantage to this gear is not just that they generally avoid bycatch,” Kerstetter said, “but also that the animals that are unintentionally caught are generally released alive because the gear is constantly monitored.”

The pilot program provided equipment and a subsidy for fuel to the four vessels. “We’re hoping they can adapt their knowledge of the target species to the new gear,” Kerstetter said. “No one knows better how to fish the Gulf of Mexico than those who already fish the Gulf of Mexico.”

The luncheon, presented by the Gulf Restoration Network environmental group, drew a crowd of 60 people; commercial fisherman, chefs and environmentalists filled the tables.

One commercial tuna fisherman, Thien Nguyen, sat a few chairs down from Kerstetter. Nguyen runs the Queensland boat out of Dulac and has been part of the gear pilot program for about a month. Speaking through a Vietnamese-language interpreter, he said it was too early to give his opinion.

One observation, though, is that the greenstick requires the boat to constantly troll, burning a considerable amount of fuel on his 80-foot vessel, Nguyen said. The gear may be better suited to a 30- or 40-foot boat.

“I would have to agree 100 percent with him,” Kerstetter said. “The way you make it economical is to use a smaller, lighter boat. That’s what we’re hoping gear transition programs will eventually help them do.”

The goal, he said, is to “find solutions that let fishermen keep fishing yellowfin tuna without bycatch.”

Greenberg, in his book “Four Fish,” made an impassioned plea for putting considerable thought into the problems associated with tuna fishing worldwide. “For bluefin tuna and all species of tuna are the living representation of the very limits of the ocean,” he wrote. “Their global decline is a warning that we just might destroy our last wild food.”

Source: The Times-Picayune | Nola.com

Filed under: Environment | Healthy Communities

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