TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - The Atlantic bluefin tuna gained protections from overfishing in the Gulf of Mexico and the waters off North Carolina under a federal rule published on Tuesday to better regulate a species coveted by sushi lovers.
The regulations, effective in January, restrict the use of certain longline fishing gear in parts of the Gulf of Mexico during April and May, when the species spawns in the region.
Off North Carolina, regulators are closely monitoring fishermen and tightening enforcement of quotas for the species. High numbers of bluefin tuna have been fatally snared in fishing lines set to catch swordfish, regulators said.
Many of the dead bluefin tuna were being dumped back into the ocean under current regulations.
“That is a waste,” said Margo Schulze-Haugen, division chief of highly migratory species management for NOAA Fisheries, a federal agency. “The fish that are caught that are dead will come to shore, and they will be used,” she added.
Environmental leaders praised the protections.
”Rebuilding bluefin stocks will take work, but if the government and fishery managers stay committed, fishermen will reap the benefits through large and stable future catches,” Gib Brogan, northeast representative for the Oceana conservation group, said in a statement.
The regulations were devised through extensive public hearings. Regulators received nearly 200,000 comments about the tuna, which can weigh over 1,000 pounds (450 kg) and reach 6 feet (1.8 meters) in length.
While the species is not endangered, fishing is strictly regulated by U.S. and international authorities, which set annual quotas. The species is highly prized in sushi and sashimi, and an individual fish can fetch prices of $10,000 or more, NOAA said. Japan is the prime market for the fish.
In the central Gulf, the rule will affect an area of water the length of the state of Louisiana, regulators said, roughly spanning from Galveston, Texas to Gulfport, Mississippi.
Fishing vessels departing from the Florida Panhandle will also be affected by new limits on longline gear during key months, but their use is permitted during the rest of the year.
Some fishermen had hoped for more opportunities to go after a prized catch.
“I don’t think our fisherman are crazy about it,” North Carolina charter boat Captain Rom Whitaker said of the rule to protect bluefin tuna. “It’s probably one of the most studied, politicized fish in the ocean.”
Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Peter Cooney