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Is it time for a moratorium on commercial fishing of Pacific bluefin tuna?

  • According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, projections show that Pacific bluefin tuna numbers have less than a one percent chance of recovering within two decades barring immediate and decisive action from fisheries managers.
  • The two regional fisheries management organizations that have the ability to put in place measures that would give Pacific bluefin some breathing room — the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) — have so far failed to adopt a Pacific-wide recovery plan to put an end to overfishing so that the fish’s population can return to healthy levels.
  • After failing to reach an agreement on management measures for Pacific bluefin tuna when it met in July of this year, the IATTC met again last week. But the organization was once again unable to produce the breakthrough the species needs.

Pacific bluefin tuna are severely overfished. A stock assessment released last April found that the Pacific bluefin population has dropped by 97.4 percent from its historic, pre-fishing levels, leaving just 2.6 percent of the species’ original population in the wild.

The chances of the population rebounding are not exactly robust, either. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, projections show that Pacific bluefin tuna numbers have less than a one percent chance of recovering within two decades barring immediate and decisive action from fisheries managers. The group says that it may be time to consider a commercial fishing ban to ensure the survival of the Pacific bluefin tuna.

Pacific bluefin tuna are primarily fished by fleets from Japan, Mexico, and the United States, which haul in catches worth hundreds of millions of dollars every year. The deeply red and fatty meat of the fish is especially prized for use in sushi and sashimi, but increasing consumption of Pacific bluefin is driving the species to extinction.

The IUCN Red List currently categorizes Pacific bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis) as Vulnerable, and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service announced earlier this month its decision that the Pacific bluefin may be eligible for listing under the Endangered Species Act, though a final determination won’t be made until next year.

Amanda Nickson, director of global tuna conservation for Pew, says that the two regional fisheries management organizations that have the ability to put in place measures that would give Pacific bluefin some breathing room — the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) — have so far failed to adopt a Pacific-wide recovery plan to put an end to overfishing so that the fish’s population can return to healthy levels.

To this day, commercial fishing continues at a rate as much as three times higher than what scientists consider sustainable, Nickson said, even though the IATTC and the WFPFC have mandates to make science-based management decisions.

After failing to reach an agreement on management measures for Pacific bluefin tuna when it met in July of this year, the IATTC met again last week. But the organization was once again unable to produce the breakthrough the species needs, and instead decided to maintain catch quotas at current levels, Nickson said.

“The only thing they did was agree on an initial rebuilding target to be reached by 2024” that would do “little more than take Pacific bluefin from severely overfished to slightly less overfished,” Nickson told Mongabay.

The need for stricter governance of Pacific bluefin tuna fisheries is clear, experts say. The species was fished in the absence of any regulation whatsoever for 70 or more years, yet the first assessment of tuna stocks wasn’t completed until 2012, Andre Boustany, a research scientist at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, noted in a conference call ahead of the October IATTC meeting.

“So we didn’t even know how bad the stock was until, you know, very recently,” Boustany said. “And having fisheries operate that long without even having an assessment done and without having any sort of total allowable catches or any sort of conservation and control measures is just recipe for disaster, which is exactly what we got.”

The WCPFC will meet in December and attempt to set responsible catch limits that curb overfishing. But so far, strong action has been lacking at both the IATTC and the WCPFC, which is why Pew is calling for a two-year commercial fishing moratorium on Pacific bluefin. A temporary fishery closure would immediately end overfishing, giving the fish a chance to reproduce and allowing time for fisheries managers to agree on a longer-term recovery plan that would return the population to healthy levels.

Despite all of the information we’ve gathered about Pacific bluefin tuna since the first stock assessment in 2012, there has been little to no real improvement in management, according to Pew’s Nickson.

“So it seems clear to us that without a commercial moratorium, there is no impetus to actually move forward with strong management,” she said on the conference call prior to the IATTC meeting earlier this month. “And beyond that, it may be that something like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which actually provides for international trade controls on endangered species, may actually be the only way to save this population going forward.”

Pacific bluefin tuna at Kasai Rinkai Park, Tokyo, Japan. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.