Endangered-Species Status Is Sought for Bluefin Tuna
Fearing that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will deal a severe
blow to the bluefin tuna, an environmental group is demanding that the
government declare the fish an endangered species, setting off
extensive new protections under federal law.
Scientists agree that the Deepwater Horizon spill poses at least some
risk to the bluefin, one of the most majestic - and valuable - fishes
in the sea. Its numbers already severely depleted from record levels,
the bluefin is also the subject of a global controversy regarding
The bluefin is not the only fish that spawns in the gulf, and while it
is often a focus of attention, researchers are worried about the
impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on many other species.
In fact, scientists say, it is virtually certain that billions of fish
eggs and larvae have died in the spill, which came at the worst
possible time of the year. Spawning season for many fish in the gulf
begins in April and runs into the summer. The drilling rig exploded on
April 20, and the spill has since covered thousands of square miles
with patches of oil.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations tried to win greater
international protection for the bluefin, but their efforts were
derailed by opposition from countries like Japan, where a single large
bluefin can sell in the sashimi market for hundreds of thousands of
dollars. (The tuna fish sold in cans comes from more abundant types of
tuna, not from bluefin.)
The bluefin uses the Gulf of Mexico as a prime spawning ground, and
the gulf is such a critical habitat for the animal that fishing for it
there was banned in the 1980s. But after spawning in the spring and
summer, many tuna spend the rest of the year roaming the Atlantic,
where they are hunted by a global fishing fleet.
The environmental advocacy group, the Center for Biological Diversity,
in Tucson, filed the request under the Endangered Species Act in late
May. If the petition is granted, a process that could take years, the
endangered listing would require that federal agencies conduct
exhaustive analysis before taking any action, like granting drilling
permits, that would pose additional risk to the fish.
Beyond tuna, other animals at apparent risk of harm include the whale
shark, the largest fish in the ocean, and a group known as billfish,
the foundation of a large recreational fishery in the Gulf of Mexico
and the western Atlantic. The billfish that could be affected include
the fastest fish in the ocean, the sailfish, as well as blue marlin
"This is a much bigger problem than people are making out," said
Barbara Block, a Stanford researcher who is among the world's leading
experts on the bluefin tuna. "The concern for wildlife is not just
along the coast; it is also at sea. We're putting oil right into the
Some of the science documenting the risks that oil drilling poses to
spawning fish was paid for by none other than the Minerals Management
Service, the federal agency responsible for leasing offshore tracts
for oil development.
Yet the results appear to have had little impact on the way the agency
carried out its business. For instance, it never adopted seasonal
limitations on drilling in the gulf that might have reduced the risk
of oil spills during spawning season. It also dismissed the dangers
that drilling posed to deep-water fish as "negligible."
President Obama has acknowledged the agency's failings. Its director,
S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, resigned, and a reorganization of the agency's
functions is under way (last week, it was renamed the Bureau of Ocean
Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement).
The agency responded to inquiries by saying that in light of the
Deepwater Horizon spill, its policies - including those for fisheries
- were under review.
Given that a single female fish can produce tens of millions of eggs,
scientists say that many billions of them would have been in the water
on April 20. The vast majority of those would never survive to
adulthood even in normal times; now bathed in oil, fewer will make it.
"It's obvious that any egg or larvae encountering oil will die," said
Molly Lutcavage, director of a research center on large fish and
turtles at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Less clear is whether fish would have continued to lay eggs near the
spill after it began. Most fish can smell, and researchers hope that
at least some species would have avoided spawning in oil. However,
fish that can be readily spotted from the air, like whale sharks, have
been seen in recent weeks in the vicinity of the spill.
"The question is, does everything shut down if there's oil there, or
do they just go ahead and spawn anyway?" said Eric Hoffmayer, a
researcher at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Many important fish in the region, like yellowfin tuna, are able to
spawn across broad areas of the gulf, and that means significant
numbers of such fish should have hatched this year far from the oil
But other species, including bluefin tuna, apparently have a strong
instinct to spawn in a specific part of the ocean. Scientists fear
that instinct might overcome the presence of oil in the water, causing
the fish to spawn in areas where their offspring would be likely to
die. One of the spawning areas in the gulf favored by bluefin is in
the vicinity of the spill, Dr. Block said.
The risks the spill poses to fish of all kinds have provoked deep
alarm among commercial and sport fishing groups. At least a half-dozen
major billfishing tournaments scheduled for June and July have been
canceled, and tourists who would normally take deep-sea fishing trips
this time of year are avoiding the gulf. The American Sportfishing
Association estimated that business owners were losing millions of
dollars in a recreational fishing industry worth more than $3.5
billion a year in the gulf.
"It's having a horrific impact on the marine and fishing industry,"
said Dan Jacobs, tournament director for an offshore fishing
championship. "The big question is, how long is it going to last?"
Given that it takes some big fish years to reach spawning age, the
death of larvae and juvenile fish could have consequences that might
not show up for a long time.
"The oil spill could be the last straw with these very vulnerable
species," said Ellen Peel, president of the Billfish Foundation, a
nonprofit group that supports recreational offshore fishing.