NEW YORK – (Dow Jones & Co) The Atlantic bluefin tuna won’t be listed as an endangered species, at least for now, as the Obama administration on Friday rejected environmentalists’ push for tougher restrictions on catching the highly prized fish.
The decision is a victory for the New England fishing industry and its supporters in Congress, who argued listing the fish as endangered would hit the industry hard. Environmentalists said overfishing and damage from last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill may have decimated the fish population.
Federal officials did designate the fish a “species of concern,” which doesn’t impose any new fishing restrictions but means the U.S. government will monitor it closely. And government scientists said Friday they would reconsider by early 2013 whether to list the fish as endangered—a move that would bar fishermen from targeting Atlantic bluefin in U.S. waters.
The Atlantic bluefin is one of the most majestic fish in the sea. It is caught off the Atlantic coast of North America and off Europe; big ones can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars each, to be served as sushi.
In 2009, the catch brought U.S. commercial fishermen $13.3 million, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials have said.
NOAA scientists said Friday they concluded the fish wasn’t in danger of extinction. If international tuna-fishing regulators follow through on recent pledges to police the global catch more closely, the health of the Atlantic bluefin population should “continue to improve,” said Eric Schwaab, assistant administrator of NOAA’s fisheries service.
“The best way forward to ensure the long-term sustainability of Atlantic bluefin tuna is through international cooperation,” he said.
Over the next two years, NOAA officials said, they expect to receive updated statistics from international regulators about the size of the Atlantic bluefin population. They also should have more information about whether last year’s oil spill seriously hurt the population.
U.S. law bans fishermen from targeting Atlantic bluefin in the Gulf, which is an important spawning ground for the fish, which then swim into the Atlantic. Federal research so far suggests the BP PLC spill, which began around the time the fish spawn in the spring, didn’t kill a large percentage of the Atlantic bluefin spawn.
Friday’s decision drew criticism from the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that filed the legal petition triggering the review of the Atlantic bluefin’s status. The group said it was considering whether to file a legal challenge.
“We’re disappointed because there are numerous indicators that show the species needs additional protection,” said Catherine Kilduff, a staff attorney for the group.
Some East Coast lawmakers praised the decision. “Such a listing would have unilaterally penalized U.S. fishermen,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R., Maine).
– By Jeffrey Ball and Tennille Tracy, Dow Jones & Company