The American Bluefin Tuna Association represents the four major categories of fishermen who harvest Atlantic bluefin, bigeye, albacore and yellowfin tuna using conventional hook and line, harpoon, handline and greenstick gear. The common thread between all these groups is the desire to conserve the resource and preserve U.S. bluefin and tropical tunas fishing.
In the US Atlantic bluefin, bigeye, albacore and yellowfin tuna fisheries, there are two categories of fishermen who are allowed to target these species for commercial purposes i.e. to fish with the exclusive intent to sell their catch. These are referred to as the General and Harpoon Categories. Fishermen who fish exclusively with Harpoon are issued a Harpoon Category permit and those who use rod and reel and/or greenstick gear or those who use harpoon at certain times during the season and rod and reel and/or greenstick gear at other times are issued a "General Category" fishing permit by NOAA. General Category permit holders are authorized to fish for bluefin, bigeye, skipjack, albacore and yellowfin tuna whereas Harpoon Category permit holders are authorized to fish only for bluefin tuna. The General and Harpoon Categories are artisanal fisheries, in accordance with UNFAO and ICCAT definitions, and are comprised of small vessels usually no more than approximately 42 ft in length.
Approximately 3,800 open access General Category permits have been issued each year in recent years to U.S. commercial fishing vessels operating on the U.S. East Coast and Gulf of Mexico for targeting bigeye, albacore and yellowfin tuna, the “tropical tunas”, and for targeting Atlantic bluefin tuna on the US East Coast.
Commercial harvesting of Atlantic bluefin tuna is not allowed in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, and this includes Artisanal General Category and Harpoon Category vessels. The Gulf of Mexico is the pre-eminent spawning grounds for west Atlantic bluefin stock. The decision by the U.S. to not allow harvesting of Atlantic bluefin when they are spawning is driven by the need to conserve and allow the rebuilding of this fish stock. The U.S. is the only country in the world that does not allow harvesting of bluefin when they are spawning and this contributes significantly to the continued health of the west Atlantic bluefin fish stock.
In recent years, only approximately 600 of the 3,800 vessels with permits in this category landed Atlantic bluefin tuna. Therefore, in recent seasons, approximately 14% of the total number of artisanal General Category permits issued are responsible for 100% of the US Atlantic bluefin tuna catch recorded under these fishing permits. According to NOAA, approximately 70% of all bluefin sold in the US is Atlantic bluefin tuna, the balance coming from the other two major bluefin stocks, Pacific and Southern bluefin. (Southern bluefin tuna is a bluefin stock that inhabits the Indian Ocean and waters south of the South China Sea.). In 2015, bluefin tuna landings by the General and Harpoon Categories represented 88% of the total amount of Atlantic bluefin harvested by U.S. vessels.
Seasonal nature of the fisheries
As is typical in most fisheries and due to the seasonal nature of all fisheries, vessels in the artisanal General Category opportunistically target, in season, Atlantic bluefin tuna or Atlantic bigeye, albacore or yellowfin tuna and, at other times during the year target other species of fish such as swordfish, haddock, pollack, monkfish, striped bass, fluke, lobster, dolphinfish (mahi), golden/blueline tilefish or mackerel. In season, Atlantic bluefin tuna inhabits the cooler waters of the Continental Shelf of the northeast coast of the US and the tropical tunas inhabit the warmer waters adjacent to the Gulf Stream further offshore. The targeting by fishermen of different fish species at certain times of year is necessitated by the varied seasonal migratory and foraging habits of each species. Fishermen are compelled to target different species at various times of year in order to achieve a steady income throughout the year. Due to the highly migratory habits of tuna, it is not possible for General Category participants to fish exclusively for Atlantic bluefin or the tropical tunas throughout the year. Although there are vessels targeting Atlantic bluefin tuna from January to March off Cape Hatteras and from June to December in the Northeast, the greatest number of participants targeting Atlantic bluefin will enter the fishery opportunistically, typically from June to November, when this species tends to be more abundant in the Northeast. Most commercial vessels targeting tropical tunas in the Northeast are more active during the period, July through October and a lesser number of fishermen will target these species from June to November.
Vessels in the artisanal General Category are allowed to retain an unlimited number of Atlantic bigeye, albacore and yellowfin tuna. The catch is therefore limited by the amount of chilled storage space available onboard and, as these vessels are typically small, storage space is limited. Catch by vessels in the artisanal General Category is truly fresh, "dayboat" catch due to the limited range of these vessels. Vessels in this category are allowed to retain Atlantic bluefin tuna greater than 73 inches in length (curved fork length) and are restricted to harvesting a maximum number of 5 bluefin tuna per trip. However, retention limits are set prior to the commencement of each season and sometimes are changed during the season (see Fishery Regulations for further info). The length restriction of minimum 73 inches imposed by the US on Atlantic bluefin is more than twice the minimum length requirement of any other harvesting country in the world, with the exception of Canada. This minimum length restriction allows Atlantic bluefin tuna to reach sexual maturity and spawn before they can be harvested. This restriction as well as the restriction on the number of fish that can be caught per trip is a sustainable practice that contributes significantly to the continued health of the west Atlantic bluefin fish stock.
Artisanal General Category vessels catch one fish at a time, exclusively using handgear. Due to the highly selective nature of this type of fishing, bycatch is nearly unknown in these fisheries. When bycatch does occur, usually shark, it is released by the fisherman and post-release mortality of bycatch is minimal. The U.S. Government and many environmental, scientific and fishing organizations acknowledge that the US artisanal Atlantic tunas fisheries use sustainable fishing methods.
Who buys our fish?
Artisanal General Category catch must be sold through federally licensed fish dealers and, in the case of Atlantic bluefin tuna, fish dealers are required to tag and report each individual fish harvested to NOAA within 24 hours of landing.
Where do these fisheries operate?
Bluefin tuna are harvested by the artisanal General Category, depending upon time of year, from the Gulf of Maine to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Tropical tunas are harvested in the region of the distant, deep water Northern Canyons, 80-150 nautical miles east of the coastline from New Jersey to Cape Cod, in the inshore waters and Canyons east of North Carolina, along the South Carolina-Florida coast, in the Florida Straits and in the US Gulf of Mexico.