The bluefin tuna is on the rebound a decade after it symbolized the failure of international fisheries management. Some scientists and Maine fishermen say the assessment by federal regulators is overdue.

U.S. fishery managers announced Wednesday that they are removing bluefin tuna from the list of species subject to overfishing, and plan to recommend to an international body that the catch quota for the U.S. be increased.

“That is one of the success stories,” said Alan Risenhoover, director of the NOAA Fisheries Service’s Office of Sustainable Fisheries.

There are about 30,000 metric tons – roughly 66 million pounds – of adult bluefin tuna in the western Atlantic, according to the 2014 stock assessment. Those population levels haven’t been seen since the early 1980s, said Lisa Kerr, a researcher who was involved in the stock assessment conducted by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, the inter-governmental organization responsible for the conservation of tuna in the Atlantic Ocean and adjacent seas.

In the U.S., Maine is second to only Massachusetts in the number of commercial fishermen who pursue bluefin tuna, the premium choice for sushi and sashimi in restaurants in Japan and, increasingly, other countries. Maine has more harpooners, the traditional way of hunting tuna, than any other state.

While the increasing abundance of tuna in the Atlantic is welcome news for fishermen, it’s unclear how increasing quota limits could help Maine fishermen because natural conditions, such as weather and the abundance of natural predators, are the biggest drivers of a fishermen’s success, said David Linney, who harpoons for tuna out of York.


Bluefin tuna roam the Atlantic and enter the Gulf of Maine in the summer to feed on herring and mackerel. He said he’s noticed increasing numbers of tuna in recent years.

Linney said he could catch more tuna if regulators would put tighter restrictions on the trawlers that catch herring.

“If there’s no food, the tuna make a swing through (the gulf) and they are here one day and they’re gone,” he said. “If they get good grub and plenty of it, they will stay two weeks.”

The number of domestic fish stocks listed as “overfished” or “subject to overfishing” is its lowest since 1997, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began tracking stock status, according to the 2014 Status of U.S. Fisheries report released Tuesday to Congress.

Bluefin tuna is among six stocks that have been removed from the list. The other stocks are: snowy grouper on the southern Atlantic Coast, gag grouper in the South Atlantic, jack in the Gulf of Mexico, North Atlantic albacore tuna and Gulf of Maine haddock.

Gulf of Maine haddock has been on the rebound for years. However, it’s difficult for fishermen to increase their catch of haddock without also catching Gulf of Maine cod, whose population is at record-low levels and has been subject to severe catch restrictions.


Molly Lutcavage, director of the Large Pelagics Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire, said regulators had underestimated the tuna population for years. She said marine biologists now know that tuna reach sexual maturity at a younger age than previously thought and that their spawning areas include not just the Gulf of Mexico, but a large swath of the Atlantic that stretches from Bermuda to the New England shelf.

Some bluefin tuna travel across the Atlantic and mix with the eastern Atlantic stock that breeds in the Mediterranean Sea. Tuna stocks had suffered greatly from overfishing in the Mediterranean, Lutcavage said, but tighter regulations in Europe in recent years have improved the stock significantly. That also has helped the stock in the western Atlantic.

“All the signs show we are on track to see a really good population as long as everyone maintains the course,” she said.

Historically, the U.S. tuna fishery has been centered in New England. More than 1,000 permits for bluefin tuna were given to Maine fishermen in 2013. About half of the tuna fishing licenses in Maine are commercial. That’s the highest percentage in the United States. In coastal states in the South, recreational fishermen far outnumber commercial fishermen.

In Japan, bluefin tuna caught in the Gulf of Maine is a delicacy known as “Boston bluefin.” When the Japanese economy was booming in the early 1990s, fishermen in New England were getting as much as $25 a pound for their tuna.

Last summer, tuna sold for $7 to $8 a pound, said Peter Kendall, manager of Yankee Fisherman’s Cooperative in Seabrook, New Hampshire, a tuna auction house that buys tuna from Maine fishermen.

Linney, the fishermen, said the new federal designation for tuna won’t affect consumer prices because they are dictated by global market forces and currency rates.

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