Protecting Atlantic Tuna Stocks
Tunas are some of the most valuable fish in the Atlantic. To keep stocks sustainable despite this demand, we oversee a range of science-based requirements. Together, they form one of the most comprehensive and responsive fishery management systems in the world.
The Atlantic tuna species we manage
Permits tailored to fishing operations
U.S. fishermen interested in pursuing Atlantic tunas in federal waters and most state waters must first get one of seven operation-specific fishing permits for their boat.
The most popular commercial permit is a General category permit. This allows fishermen to catch tunas with hand gears. Fishermen using different gears, such as pelagic longline fishermen, can apply for more tailored permits. For-hire vessels, such as charter or headboats, or small boats operating in the Caribbean, must also get permits specific to their operations.
Each year, NOAA Fisheries issues approximately 7,000 commercial permits, mostly through our online permit shop. Another 20,000 fishermen are also granted permits to fish tunas recreationally.
The unique numbers assigned to these permits, as well as each commercial vessel, play an important role in reporting.
Electronic monitoring systems
Fishermen using pelagic longline gear must install electronic monitoring systems on their vessels before setting off.
The data from these systems help us prevent overfishing and minimize bycatch of unmarketable or prohibited species. It tells us whether vessels are fishing at times and places they shouldn’t be. Electronic monitoring also improves catch reporting.
At sea requirements—bigeye, albacore, yellowfin, and skipjack
U.S. fishermen with their sights set on tuna navigate a web of requirements while on the water. Beyond the rules tied to their permits, fishermen must follow size and quantity limits while avoiding area and seasonal closures.
These requirements vary by species. For example, a permitted charter boat fishing recreationally for yellowfin tuna is limited to three fish measuring greater than 27 inches curved fork length. But there are no minimum sizes or catch limits for skipjack and albacore tunas.
At sea requirements—bluefin fishermen
Management and monitoring measures for Atlantic bluefin tuna go a step further than with the other tuna species we manage. Fresh bluefin is highly prized in global sushi and sashimi markets. Overfishing of bluefin is not currently occurring in the Atlantic, but the status of the population remains unknown.
To ensure this species is conserved for future generations, we have set a handful of additional on-the-water rules for commercial fishermen with their eye on bluefin tuna. For example, vessels targeting bluefin must fish outside of the Gulf of Mexico, where the fish return each spring to spawn. And fishermen can only operate within specific commercial seasons.
Measures to reduce bluefin bycatch
Commercial fishermen using longline gear to target swordfish and other tuna species must follow measures that reduce the amount of bluefin tuna caught incidentally, such as:
- Using “weak” circle hooks designed to straighten when larger fish or animals are caught.
- Keeping all caught bluefin tuna measuring 73 inches curved fork length or larger to reduce waste.
- Recording all bluefin landings and dead discards caught by single vessel.
Recording landings and discards is at the heart of a program that has proven to be more successful than expected at reducing the number of bluefin discarded dead. The Individual Bluefin Tuna Quota Program creates individual vessel limits within the overall science-based quota for bluefin tuna.
Each year, fishermen in this catch share program program are given their own individual shares of a portion of the U.S. Atlantic bluefin quota set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. Every bluefin kept or discarded dead is deducted from a vessel’s account balance. That balance has to be above a minimum level at the start of each quarter to pursue a desired species. If a vessel falls below its quarterly allocation, it won’t be allowed to set off on a longline fishing trip unless the owners lease some quota from others in the fleet. The result is a financial incentive for fishermen to use their expertise to avoid interactions with bluefin tuna.
Since it was implemented, the program has reduced the average annual bluefin bycatch by 65 percent compared to the three years before. That’s about 330,000 pounds—or around four fully loaded semitrucks—less bycatch each year.
Reporting requirements that track bluefin to market
We uniquely identify every bluefin tuna landed by U.S. commercial fishing and follow it as it moves from the boat to the market. This is possible thanks to our robust reporting requirements.
- Fishermen using longline gear must use the same vessel monitoring system that tracks where and when they fish to report the number of bluefin retained, discarded dead, or released alive within 12 hours of pulling in their gear.
- All other tuna permit holders must relay similar information within 24 hours of ending their trips.
- Selected fishermen must complete a logbook report within 48 hours of their fishing activities. These reports include information on which dealer their fish were transferred to, when they were transferred, and the weight of each at the time of transfer. Some also include information on the cost and earnings of each fishing trip.
- For every bluefin tuna sold, dealers must enter the vessel ID, length and weight of kept bluefin, date and location of where it was caught, and other trip-related details.
- Dealers must tag all bluefin tuna with a unique tracking number that remains with the fish until it gets to market.
To make reporting easier, we provide online and mobile reporting options, including a catch reporting app for both Apple and Android devices.
Together, we use this data to open and close fishing seasons, transfer quotas from one user group permit to another, and take other steps that provide as many fishing opportunities as possible without leading to overfishing.
Protections against illegal, unreported, or unregulated imports
Thanks to their high global demand, tunas imported from other countries are monitored under a program designed to combat seafood fraud and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. The permitting, reporting, and recordkeeping requirements of the Seafood Import Monitoring Program allows us to trace a tuna product entering the United States back to where it was harvested. Products judged to be caught illegally or without being properly reported won’t be allowed into the country.
People bringing tuna products to the United States may also be required to complete the steps below, depending on what they’re importing and whether they want to be certified dolphin-safe.
- Get an International Fisheries Trade Permit.
- Submit catch reports through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Automated Commercial Environment.
- Send HMS Biweekly Trade reports directly to NOAA Fisheries.
- Submit catch and trade information to the ICCAT Electronic Bluefin Tuna Catch Documentation System.
- Provide a statement from the vessel captain to Customs agents confirming that frozen or packaged tuna products were not caught with practices that threaten dolphins.
Learn more about the Seafood Import Monitoring Program
Learn more about the Atlantic Highly Migratory Species International Trade Program