SAN FRANCISCO, California -- The Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal scientific petition today to protect Atlantic bluefin tuna under the Endangered Species Act. Overfishing has erased more than 80 percent of the bluefin tuna in the North Atlantic compared to what the population would be without fishing pressures. Now the Gulf oil disaster threatens to devastate the western Atlantic bluefin population as millions of gallons of oil gush into the tuna's habitat during spawning season. The oil will have devastating effects on eggs and larvae floating in the sheen, and will even harm adult tunas breathing oil into their gills. Also, heavy use of dispersants threatens tuna and dispersed oil is known to be toxic to fish.
"Endangered status for bluefin tuna could mean enhanced protections for all fish and wildlife in the Gulf," said Catherine Kilduff, the author of the petition and oceans attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Oil rigs are scattered throughout essential breeding habitat for bluefin tuna, and protections could force reforms of the Interior Department's lax environmental oversight of the oil industry by limiting drilling to avoid adverse effects on fish and their habitat."
There are two imperiled populations of Atlantic bluefin tuna; one spawns only in the Gulf of Mexico while the other spawns in the Mediterranean. The petition seeks endangered status for both populations, which have collapsed due to intense overfishing. Despite attempts to set quotas for bluefin tuna, temptation for the popular sushi fish is just too great — one tuna fetched $177,000 in the fish market this year. In 2007, fishermen reported catching 34,514 tons of eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna, exceeding the allowable catch by about 5,000 tons. Scientists estimated the actual catch was likely about double the reported amount.
"Bluefin tuna encounter thousands of deadly hooks while migrating across the Atlantic, and now an oil spill will welcome home the survivors," said Kilduff. "Bluefin tuna need the protection of the Endangered Species Act, which can provide an important safety net before bluefin tuna disappear entirely from the ocean."
Able to migrate across entire oceans, bluefin return to their native spawning grounds to breed. A majestic fish weighing close to a ton and reaching 13 feet, the bluefin is among the fastest of all species, with speeds over 55 miles per hour. Bluefin tuna are threatened by overfishing, capture for tuna ranches, and changing ocean conditions from global warming.
Protection under the Endangered Species Act would require federal agencies such as the Minerals Management Service to avoid jeopardizing the bluefin tuna, and it would protect critical habitat. Additionally, protections would ban the importation of bluefin.
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