David Linney of Cape Neddick in York has been harpooning Atlantic bluefin tuna for 55 years. He learned as a boy from a fisherman in Perkins Cove who passed on his skills.

“It is addictive, and you can make a lot of money,” said Linney, who lands anywhere from five to 30 bluefin tuna a season.

Linney is among the Maine fishermen who are protesting a proposed international ban on the export of bluefin tuna, which scientists say has dwindled because of overfishing.

The fishermen have the backing of Maine’s congressional delegation and other congressmen, but not the Obama administration, which has announced its support of a ban.

Now, the U.S. fishermen are hoping to plead their case at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora in Doha, Qatar, where delegates from 175 member countries convened on Saturday.

“Anyone who studies the issues knows this is not the proper course unless you just want to destroy us,” said Richard Ruais, director of the American Bluefin Tuna Association, based in Salem, N.H., who planned to attend the convention.

Ruais said the ban would be unfair to U.S. fishermen, who have been abiding by the international bluefin tuna management structure. He blames the decline in the fish’s population on European countries that ignore the rules.

Maine fishermen once considered the Atlantic bluefin tuna a nuisance. The giant predator would get into their weirs to eat herring, and the fishermen would harpoon them and use their oil in lamps.

In the last 50 years, however, the fatty fish have become highly prized, especially for sashimi. One fish can fetch tens of thousands of dollars. Today, 550 Mainers are licensed to fish commercially for bluefin tuna, and 8,260 are licensed along the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf of Mexico, said Brad McHale, fishery management specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Last year, Maine fishermen were getting $5 to $6 a pound for bluefin tuna.

Almost all use rod and reel. Only a few dozen, like Linney, fish exclusively by harpoon. Almost all of them are in Maine, where the fish collect on the surface.

For most fishermen, the bluefin tuna catch supplements their income from lobstering or groundfishing.

U.S. fishermen account for only 2 percent of the world’s bluefin tuna catch. Half of the tuna caught by American fishermen is exported, largely to Japan.

Two subspecies of bluefin tuna, the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean stocks, spawn in the Mediterranean, and the Western subspecies spawns in the Gulf of Mexico. The stocks are managed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. NOAA regulates the U.S. fishery.

But global management efforts are not working. Scientists say bluefin tuna populations have declined steeply. Spawning stocks of the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean have dropped from a spawning stock biomass of 305,135 tons in 1955 to 78,724 tons in 2007. That’s a 74 percent decline.

The Western Atlantic spawning stock has dropped from 49,482 tons in 1970 to 8,693 in 2007, an 82 percent drop. Scientists say the population has stabilized due to management and strict U.S. compliance with international management rules.

Ruais blames much of the decline on Europeans who gather the fish in purse seine nets, then slowly drag them back to inland waters, where they are fattened for markets.

Ruais argues that a ban on exports of bluefin tuna will spawn a black market and will be meaningless because Japan, which accounts for 90 percent of the market, has already announced that it would not abide by the ban.

Ruais said the ban would raise prices for bluefin tuna in the United States, where it wouldn’t be available in the off-season.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has been the bluefin tuna fishery’s biggest supporter. She blasted the Obama administration’s support for the ban and called on NOAA to adopt policies friendlier to U.S. fishermen.

“Even though our fishermen have operated under the strongest conservation measures in the world, if this (ban) is approved they will have to pay the price for all the other bad actors’ failure to control harvest levels,” Snowe said in a written statement.

While Maine fishermen and the boat builders and fish dealers who support them say they will suffer if the ban is approved, most Mainers may not notice any changes at their favorite sushi bars.

Sushi chef Ram Tray at the Yasuko Japanese Restaurant in Portland said there are many other types of fish available, and most Maine sushi customers can’t tell the difference among tunas.

“It is just a small part of our business,” said Tray.

 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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