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NOAA declines to protect Atlantic bluefin tuna

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Friday that the world’s most sought-after fish, the Atlantic bluefin tuna, does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

NOAA made the determination despite concerns that the bluefin fishery in the western Atlantic may have been devastated by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion. The gulf is the fish’s only known breeding area, and spawning takes place around the time the oil started to gush.

“NOAA is concerned about the status of bluefin tuna, including the potential effects of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill on the western stock of Atlantic bluefin, which breeds in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator.

“We will revisit the status of the species in early 2013 when we will have a new stock assessment and information from the Natural Resource Damage Assessment of the oil spill,” she said.

NOAA listed bluefin as a “species of concern” with no fishing prohibitions.

The agency was responding to a petition the Center for Biological Diversity filed last May in an effort to have the fish declared endangered.

Prized by sushi lovers for its buttery flesh, bluefin have been targeted by fishing boat operators for decades for the prices they fetch in Japan. A single bluefin sold for a record $173,600 in Tokyo in 2001.

Over the past 50 years, the adult population of eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna has declined 74 percent. In the western Atlantic, there has been an 82 percent drop in 40 years.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, the global body that sets catch quotas for the fish, trimmed the total 2011 catch limits on both sides of the Atlantic by 4 percent, to 12,900 metric tons in the eastern Atlantic and 1,800 to 1,750 metric tons in the western Atlantic. ICCAT declined to shut down fishing in the tuna’s spawning grounds.

Lee Crockett, director of federal fisheries policy for the Pew Environment Group, said that bluefin are a migratory fish that can swim at speeds equal to a car. “Just going at the U.S. portion of this is not going to solve the problem,” he said. “Our position is the U.S. needs to do a better job of working through ICCAT.”

In addition to being heavily fished in its own right, about 111 metric tons of bluefin are killed incidentally in the nets of vessels searching for swordfish and yellowfin tuna.

“That should be prohibited,” Crockett said. “That’s the one thing [NOAA’s] National Marine Fisheries Service could do in the U.S. They’ve done very little to limit that.”

Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

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