Gulf Fish Restoration Project Now Into Its Second Year

Now entering its second year, the Oceanic Fish Restoration Project looks to restore the Gulf of Mexico's ecosystem to its former self

On April 20, 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon Macondo oil platform leased by oil company BP tragically killed 11 workers, injured 17 more and started the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history.

When the rig capsized and sank April 22, oil began discharging into the Gulf of Mexico. The volume of oil, originally estimated by BP to be about 1,000 barrels per day, actually peaked at 60 times that amount.

During the 87 days following the initial explosion, the damaged well, 41 miles off the Louisiana coast, spewed 4.9 million barrels (210 million gallons) of oil into the Gulf. In addition, approximately 1.8 million gallons of dispersants (solvents that break oil into smaller particles) were applied to the spill area.

The oil and dispersants severely harmed Gulf fish populations. Hard hit were many oceanic pelagic species living in deep waters beyond the continental shelf. These included bluefin and yellowfin tuna, sharks, amberjacks, swordfish, sailfish, marlins and mackerel.

The spill killed many fish outright. Survivors showed reduced growth and reproduction, impaired immune functions and deformities such as curved spines and heart defects.

The widespread pollution caused fishing closures across 88,500 square miles, harming fishing businesses and communities dependent on these natural resources.

During the eight years since the Deepwater Horizon incident, government agencies and private entities have worked together to restore the Gulf ecosystem to its former health. One venture with this aim – the Oceanic Fish Restoration Project – entered its second year on January 1.

Through this project, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) hope to restore Gulf fish populations by encouraging commercial fishing vessel owners to voluntarily refrain from using pelagic longline fishing gear for several months each year.

Gulf longliners set hundreds of hooks on lines extending an average of 30 miles to catch yellowfin tuna and swordfish, but they also catch and kill dozens of other species, including spawning bluefin tuna and hard-fighting gamefish such as blue marlin. Laws prohibit keeping the latter, so these fish are thrown back. Many die.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service’s National Bycatch Report, 30 percent of fish captured on longline hooks in 2011 were discarded. Such waste prolongs recovery efforts.

Many recreational fishermen would like to see longlining banned altogether, saying the lines are “stealthy, deadly and undiscerning.” Others say, at the very least, it’s time we rethink how we commercially fish in the Gulf.

The International Game Fish Association, for example, supports closing the Gulf of Mexico to surface longlines. In Switching Gears: Surface Longlining in the Gulf of Mexico, produced by Pew Environment Group, IGFA Conservation Director Jason Schratwieser said, “We have found that closing areas to longlines does work to reduce bycatch significantly … We need to look at shifting how we fish in the Gulf of Mexico. I think we can find a happy medium to employ commercial anglers that provide quality seafood products to the U.S. and at the same time have healthy fisheries.”

The Oceanic Fish Restoration Project could help by using innovative methods that reduce longlining and the resulting bycatch.

NOAA and NFWF say the project will help support healthier populations of fish throughout the Gulf and a stronger fishing industry in the future by reducing fish mortality and allowing fish to grow and reproduce.

“We understand that fishing businesses and communities depend on these oceanic resources, which are also critical components of the Gulf ecosystem,” said Chris Oliver, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “Exciting innovations in gear reduce bycatch and restore fish populations, keeping local economies and the environment healthy.”

During 2017’s four-month pilot program, the seven participating vessel owners were compensated to help offset lost revenue during the repose. They also were provided alternative gear that specifically targets yellowfin tuna and swordfish and results in a low bycatch of other fish.

By fishing with the alternative gear, the ship owners could continue hiring crews, purchasing fuel and supplies from shore-side businesses and bringing fish to market. Working with participants, dealers and researchers on this portion of the project also provided NFWF and NOAA with an opportunity to study and improve the efficiency of these types of fishing gear.

Based on feedback from stakeholders after the 2017 pilot year, changes were made to add more alternative-gear fishing days, additional training to improve gear use and more gear choices.

“We had the opportunity to learn from the pilot and, through partnerships and engagement, made key enhancements to improve the project both for volunteer participants and members of the local supply chain,” said Oliver.

All seven first-year participants felt the experience was a positive one. One said, “I found it very rewarding to be a part of the research and experiment with the new gear, as well as to be a part of something that could help restore fish in the Gulf.”

Of the 37 eligible vessel owners in the Gulf, more than half applied to be part of the project in 2018. But the number of applicants exceeded the project’s capacity. Seven vessel owners from Louisiana and three from Florida will participate.

All applications were reviewed by NFWF and NOAA and went through a rigorous selection process that included consideration of vessel owners’ past enforcement history and their quote for compensation.

“We will continue to have an ongoing dialogue with the broader community of fishery stakeholders to make this project as strong as possible,” said Eric Schwaab, vice president of conservation programs at NFWF.

“Building on the success of the pilot year, we continue to expand and strengthen the project and are thrilled that so many qualified vessel owners across the Gulf applied this year,” he added. “Participants will continue to help support restoration of pelagic fish in the Gulf of Mexico while also sustaining important commercial fisheries.”

The 2018 repose began January 1 and runs through June 30. Participants will receive compensation to refrain from pelagic longline fishing and will be able to use two fishing methods identified last year – deep-drop swordfish rigs and buoy gear for targeting yellowfin tuna – that could help maintain landings of targeted fish and increase participation.

NOAA and NFWF hope that reducing overall fish mortality in this way will allow more fish to grow and reproduce, supporting healthier fish populations throughout the Gulf. The project will continue annually for the next five to 10 years, with an expected annual six-month repose period beginning each January.

Let’s hope the project achieves its goals. The Deepwater Horizon incident had devastating effects on both commercial and recreational fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, and thousands of people were adversely affected as a result.

What we learn through the Oceanic Fish Restoration Project could help restore Gulf fish populations to levels not seen since many years before the oil spill and protect those fish stocks for the benefit of future generations.

The Oceanic Fish Restoration Project is funded with money made available by BP. To learn more, visit the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation website.

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