Creative Ways to Protect Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (VIDEO)


NOTE: This is a guest post from Lee Crockett, Director of Federal Fisheries Policy at the Pew Environment Group

This post is part of Pew’s Overfishing 101 series. Previous posts can be viewed here.


Many people have heard of bluefin tuna, even if they haven’t eaten it. Bluefin, which are among the world’s most remarkable animals, can reach 1,500 pounds, migrate across the Atlantic, dive to depths of more than 3,000 feet and swim at breakneck speeds. They have also been pursued for centuries for their rich, buttery flesh. Traditional bluefin fisheries used to be sustainable, but loosely regulated industrial-scale fishing changed everything for this amazing fish.

Atlantic bluefin are managed as two separate populations, based on where they reproduce. In the western Atlantic, they spawn in the Gulf of Mexico. In the east, they spawn in the Mediterranean Sea. Although these fish crisscross the ocean, each stock returns annually to breed in its place of origin.

The western population of mature Atlantic bluefin has dropped 82 percent since 1970; only about 41,000 tuna that are able to reproduce remain. As early as 1982, scientists and fisheries managers recognized the importance of protecting severely depleted bluefin in the Gulf of Mexico and prohibited targeted fishing for this species.

However, a loophole remains. Surface longline fishermen targeting yellowfin tuna and swordfish are permitted to keep up to three bluefin per trip if they are caught incidentally. From January through June, as bluefin return to the Gulf to breed, surface longline fishermen land hundreds of these giant fish. About a quarter are kept for sale, and the remainder, mostly dead, are thrown overboard. According to U.S. data, surface longlines in the Gulf of Mexico kill more fish now than thirty years ago.

Problems with Surface Longlines

In the Gulf of Mexico, surface longlines stretch on average for 30 miles and dangle approximately 800 baited hooks. These hooks, left unattended sometimes for up to 18 hours, routinely catch more than 80 different animals, including protected species such as bluefin tuna, blue marlinsailfish and endangered loggerhead sea turtles. Surface longlines also harm an inordinate amount of the targeted species because of size restrictions. Fishermen discard approximately half of all swordfish caught, and 77 percent of those discards are dead.

The United States has tried for years to reduce dead discards from surface longlines, including establishing closed areas to this fishing method in the Atlantic and part of the Gulf of Mexico, prohibiting the use of live bait and regulating hook shape, size and strength. Yet these fishermen still harm vulnerable ocean wildlife. The good news is that long-term solutions to this decades-old problem are available. Two relatively new types of fishing gear might finally solve the issue of catching and killing non-targeted animals while keeping Gulf fishermen on the water, so they can continue to provide yellowfin tuna and swordfish to market.

Innovative Solutions

Buoy gear, developed on Florida’s east coast, is an effective way to catch swordfish in an area closed to surface longlines. This fishing method involves approximately 15 pieces of gear, including two or three buoys and a main line attached to a baited hook that drifts with the current. The fishermen stay with the gear and pull swordfish in by hand. Onboard research indicates extremely low rates of unintended catch, and almost all undersize swordfish are released alive because the fishermen actively watch for bites and quickly release “short” fish.

Green stick gear is a trolling method developed by the Japanese that is now used off the mid-Atlantic coast. Using a fiberglass pole, boats drag a line that is kept taut by a weight. From the line dangle four to 10 hooks that dip in and out of the water, mimicking a school of flying fish chased by a predator. This gear has proved to be effective at catching yellowfin tuna. Moreover, because catches are brought back to the boat in minutes, discarded fish stand a much greater chance of survival compared with those caught on surface longlines.

These two gears will not only reduce the amount of bluefin tuna caught and killed by surface longlines in the Gulf of Mexico, but they also could reduce unnecessary deaths of countless other ocean animals that come into contact with this indiscriminate fishing gear. If the United States is serious about leading the way toward sustainable management of bluefin tuna, the Gulf of Mexico is the right place to start.

Next time, I’ll discuss how fraud and illegal fishing pose two of the biggest problems threatening bluefin in the Mediterranean Sea and continue to keep the number killed well above the legal quota. In mid-November, member countries of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas will convene to go over these challenges facing bluefin and more. I’ll also touch upon this meeting in coming weeks, so stay tuned.


Read the rest of the Overfishing 101 series:

Overfishing: It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

New England’s First Year of Fishing Under Sectors

Why Rebuilding Fish Populations Benefits Everyone

A Big Fish Story We Should Take Seriously (Video)

How Science Helps Managers End Overfishing and Rebuild Depleted Fish Populations

A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding U.S. Fishery Management

How Ocean Fish Populations are Managed in the U.S.

How Ocean Fish Populations are Managed in the U.S. (Part 2)

The Importance of Rebuilding Our Fish Populations Without Delay

Why Ending Overfishing Pays Off in the Long Run

Why Ending Overfishing is Good for Both Fish and Fishermen Alike


Jane H.
Jane H6 years ago

let's hope that changing the way they fish in the Gulf will happen and will help!

Bob P.


Rodney P.
Rodney P6 years ago

So typical. We have the solutions, but the greedy , uncaring ones will do nothing to help. Thet just continue to rape and destroy our amazing planet and it's creatures. Like true morons, however, they cannot see that they ultimately are killing us all!

Shel G.
Shel G6 years ago

Yet another article highlighting the problems that human overpopulation causes.

Cynthia H.
Cynthia H6 years ago

Sad that humans ruin everything they put their hands on. If there is a potential for "by-catch", then it should not be allowed. Period. QUIT EATING MEAT - I eat nothing with a face - NOTHING.

Patrick F.
Patrick f6 years ago

Let's put the blame where it lies, the commercial fishing industry.....INDUSTRY. Anytime some big company or corporation takes over something, they destroy countless lives and stocks in their wake due to the one thing that screws everything up....GREED. Hundreds or thousands of small fishing crews could supply the world with food without the total destruction of any species. If people are to survive another century, corporations need to be removed from the picture, their total disregard for ANYTHING but profit will destroy civilization and everyone in it.

Don't take my word for it, check it out for yourself. Who does all the work in these corporations and who makes all the money?

Tim Cheung
Tim C6 years ago


Janet Ives
Janet Ives6 years ago

Fishing I wish it would all stop. Its methods, so unbelievably cruel, are exonerated by the LIE that "it's all OK because fish don't feel a thing". If there are any neural systems not working, I'd wager they belong to the MORONS who swallow this crap!

Gloria Ortega

thanhs. anoted.

Lynn C.
Lynn C6 years ago

Well, it's encouraging that they are trying to find a solution. Time is the problem - do they have enough time to implement these ideas before the populations dive to unsustainable levels.

Of course, this does not address the problems of pollution and oil slicks in more and more of our seas.