5 Things We Need to Save Pacific Bluefin

Following a week-long meeting of fishing nations in Fukuoka, Japan, the severely depleted population of Pacific bluefin tuna is expected to experience some limited relief after decades of overfishing. Still, the nations at the meeting did not agree on the measures needed for long-term recovery. Instead, they approved a rebuilding target that is far from the big break this species needs to fully recover.

Meeting in early September, members of the Northern Committee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) agreed to cut the catch of juvenile bluefin in western and central Pacific waters by 50 percent from the average level seen between 2002 and 2004. The committee also supported measures to maintain the catch of adults  at or below the baseline level for those years.   However, when discussing a longer-term plan for the species, members could only agree on a 10-year rebuilding target of just 6.9 percent of the population’s historically unfished size.  Such minimal growth would mean that fishermen would continue to target a severely depleted Pacific bluefin population for the next decade or longer.

The latest assessment by the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean (ISC), an independent group of scientists, found that the Pacific bluefin population has declined by 96 percent from its unfished size. Today, small, juvenile fish make up nearly 98 percent of the total catch, which means that most of the fish caught have not had a chance to reproduce and contribute to building future generations.The ISC has warned that the population will not increase without significant cuts in catch for both adults and juveniles.

"The short-term measures the Northern Committee has recommended are encouraging; however, this is just the first step in solving a decades-long overfishing problem that has resulted in the decimation of this population," said Amanda Nickson, director of global tuna conservation for The Pew Charitable Trusts. "The bottom line here is that countries across the Pacific have the responsibility to agree on a strong recovery plan that does more than raise the population from severely depleted to slightly less severely depleted. If all governments involved in the fishery cannot agree on responsible and comprehensive actions, trade restrictions or stronger measures must be considered."

In order to save Pacific Bluefin, here are the five things that must be done:

1.  A stronger science-based precautionary recovery plan has to be implemented

The proposed cut in juvenile catch is encouraging, but it’s not enough on its own to bring Pacific bluefin back from the brink. The latest ISC assessment analyzed seven scenarios that included a range of catch levels. Only one option offered a chance of population growth within 10 years under current conditions.  It contained two critical elements:

First, a limit must be set on the annual juvenile catch in western and central Pacific waters of no more than 4,570 metric tons. That figure corresponds to a 50 percent reduction from average catch in 2002-04, though it amounts to only a 6 percent reduction from 2010-11 levels. Members of the Northern Committee agreed to that cap, but the second element is out of their jurisdiction. A total catch limit of no more than 2,750 metric tons is needed in the eastern Pacific, which is managed by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC).

An effective rebuilding plan also requires a coordinated, ocean-wide effort that returns the spawning population—the fish able to reproduce—to 155,000 metric tons within 10 years. That amounts to 25 percent of the Pacific bluefin population’s original size, the minimum level needed to support a healthy fishery.

2.  26 nations in the west must commit to saving Pacific bluefin.

The Northern Committee recommends conservation management measures, but the entire WCPFC has the final say. At the annual meeting in December 2014, all commission members should support the short-term catch reductions, and request that the Northern Committee revisit and strengthen the long-term rebuilding target at its next meeting. 

3. 21 nations in the east must also agree and commit to conservation measures. 

The Pacific bluefin population is highly migratory; some fish travel all the way from Japan to Mexico and back. Since fish populations must be managed as a whole, the WCPFC isn’t the only regional fisheries management body that has work to do. 

Members of IATTC are responsible for fishing in the east. These countries could not reach agreement on measures for rebuilding Pacific bluefin tuna when they met in July, so they’re scheduled to reconvene in late October. At this meeting, they must agree to an overall catch limit of 2,750 metric tons a year, a level that scientists predict will aid recovery of the bluefin population.

4. The fishing industry needs to commit to recovery as well.

For an ocean-wide rebuilding plan to work, it must have buy-in from the fishing industry. Everyone from recreational anglers in southern California to commercial fishermen in Mexico to small-scale fishermen in Japan must come together to support a plan that will lead to a healthy bluefin tuna population in the Pacific. 

5. Strong and regular monitoring must be undertaken to ensure progress toward rebuilding and recovery.

The Pacific bluefin population is in intensive care. Once everyone agrees to the plan, there must be regularly scheduled check-ups to measure progress. These include scientific assessments of the population, as well as timely government monitoring and enforcement to secure compliance. An electronic catch documentation system that tracks each fish from sea to sale is a critical tool for achieving this objective.

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