Pacific bluefin tuna could be off-limits for U.S. fishermen if federal scientists agree to protect the coveted game fish under the Endangered Species Act.
The Center for Biological Diversity, with more than a dozen groups including Greenpeace, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club, has petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to list bluefin as an endangered species. The process of review and public comment on the endangered listing would take two years, if the service agrees to consider it.
"Without help, we may see the last Pacific bluefin tuna sold off and lost to extinction," said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The call for a moratorium on bluefin fishing comes at a time when vast schools are appearing in Southern California waters, thanks to "the blob," a body of warm water off the West Coast created by stagnant wind conditions to the north.
"The quality of fish and the quantity of fish in our local area is probably the best we've ever seen," said Buzz Brizendine, a representative on the Pacific Fishery Management Council and captain of the Prowler, a sport boat out of Fisherman's Landing in San Diego.
Brizendine said U.S. fishermen have done their part to conserve bluefin by complying with strict catch limits enacted last year, and said efforts to restore the population should be balanced with the economic value of the fishery.
Bluefin tuna are prized for their rich flavor and fierce fight, and are considered to be one of the most challenging tuna to catch. They're sought after for sushi, and fetch high prices on Japanese markets.
That popularity has decimated the fishery. Despite their apparent abundance in U.S. waters, bluefin had plunged to just 4% of their historic high in 2014. This year their stock fell below 3% of unfished levels, Kilduff said.
Many of the fish are caught before reaching spawning age, and few young bluefin are surviving, creating a downward spiral for the population.
"We're targeting the young fish before they have the chance to reproduce," Kilduff said.
Fisheries managers have already reined in the catch of the iconic sport fish. Last July, federal rules limited the U.S. commercial fleet to 600 metric tons of bluefin over two years, a 40% reduction from the previous limit of 500 metric tons per year.
At the same time new rules restricted the bag limit for sport fishermen from 10 to two bluefin per day. Because few fishermen land more than three per day, that resulted in a catch reduction of about 30%, Kilduff said.
Anglers grudgingly accepted the lower bag limits, but say that outlawing bluefin fishing in U.S. waters would harm West Coast fishermen, without helping the species recover.
About 84% of bluefin are caught in waters off Asia, so banning bluefin caught by U.S. anglers wouldn't take a big bite out of the problem, Brizendine said.