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Lawsuit Launched To Save Tuna Imperiled By Overfishing, Gulf Of Mexico Oil Spill; Effects 'Years To Come'

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SAN FRANCISCO, California -- The Center for Biological Diversity today formally notified the National Marine Fisheries Service it intends to sue the agency for failing to respond to a petition to protect Atlantic bluefin tuna. The tuna, which migrates across the Atlantic to spawn in the Gulf of Mexico, faces extinction due to severe fishing pressure and habitat degradation, including effects of the BP oil spill. The Center filed its Endangered Species Act petition in May; the agency has missed the 90-day legal response deadline.

"The oil well is capped, but the effects of the spill on bluefin tuna will be seen for years to come," said Catherine Kilduff, a Center oceans program attorney. "Tuna were already struggling in the Gulf; the spill made the problem worse. If the government doesn't move quickly, the question won't be when the tuna will recover, but if they'll survive at all."

Overfishing of Atlantic bluefin tuna has caused more than an 80 percent decline from what the population would be absent fishing pressure. The millions of gallons of oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico and into tuna breeding grounds during spawning season threaten to further reduce the western Atlantic population. Scientists say any eggs or larvae encountering oil will die; oil may also have harmed adult tunas' gills, and heavy use of dispersants killed fish and other marine life.

"Endangered status for bluefin tuna could mean enhanced protections for all fish and wildlife in the Gulf," said Kilduff. "To survive this disaster and recover, fish and wildlife need stronger oversight of the offshore oil industry and protection of essential habitat."

There are two imperiled populations of Atlantic bluefin tuna: one that spawns in the Gulf of Mexico, another which spawns in the Mediterranean. The petition seeks endangered status for both populations, which are intensely overfished. Temptation to catch the popular sushi fish remains high — one tuna sold for $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.

The bluefin, a majestic fish weighing close to a ton and reaching 13 feet, is among the fastest of all species, capable of speeds over 55 miles per hour. They are threatened by overfishing, capture for tuna ranches, and changing ocean and climate conditions.

Protection under the Endangered Species Act would require federal agencies such as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement to avoid jeopardizing the bluefin tuna in permitting offshore drilling. Additionally, protections would safeguard critical habitat and ban the importation of bluefin.

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