Atlantic bluefin tuna may become endangered, thanks to Gulf oil spill
The National Marine Fisheries Service has agreed to study whether to list the Atlantic bluefin tuna, which has a major spawning ground in the Gulf of Mexico near the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, as an endangered species.
The decision, announced on the federal agency's web page on Thursday, comes after a Tuesday threat by the Center for Biological Diversity to sue the agency for not adequately protecting the tuna species under the Endangered Species Act.
The environmental group on May 24 petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to begin the study. In its announcement, the fisheries service said, "We find that the petition presents substantial scientific information indicating the petitioned action may be warranted."
A year before the Deepwater Horizon blowout, renowned tuna researcher Barbara Block, a Stanford University marine biologist, had tracked a 700-pound tuna's annual trek into the Gulf to lay its eggs in surface waters, and the meandering fish crisscrossed the deep Gulf slope between Louisiana and western Florida for two months before heading to the northern Atlantic.
That path repeatedly took it through the area of the oil well blowout, where skimmers were removing oil from the surface and where oil was often burned. Several times, the tuna swam right by the site of the well.
"The Atlantic bluefin tuna was already devastated by overfishing prior to the Gulf spill, but afterwards, we've been very concerned that the spill impacted its spawning season," said Center for Biological Diversity attorney Catherine Kilduff. "There are only two known breeding grounds for the tuna. Any eggs touched by oil would die, and adults in the Gulf of Mexico were already stressed because they're in its warm waters for spawning -- and the pollution could have affected their behavior and their success for reproducing."
Even the death of a single year's eggs could have a devastating effect on the species, Block said earlier this year, because the bluefin is at the top of the Gulf's food chain, and just growing to sexual maturity takes as long as 10 years.
The National Marine Fisheries Service will assemble a team of scientists to review whether the fish should be categorized as endangered or threatened. That could lead to a recommendation in 12 months to list the fish, with another year to finalize the listing.
If the fish were determined to be threatened or endangered, the National Marine Fisheries Service could:
It could also establish areas considered to be critical habitats needing protection.
Federal agencies also would be required to give additional protection to the fish. For instance, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement might be required to restrict seismic activities in parts of the Gulf of Mexico during spawning season and strengthen regulations for offshore drilling and production to ensure that those activities, including oil spills, do not affect the fish.
A finding that the species is endangered also could result in the U.S. petitioning an international body that governs fishing to also declare the species as endangered, which could trigger fishing restrictions on Atlantic bluefin tuna in other parts of the Gulf, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.
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