Urgent Action Needed to Protect Pacific Bluefin Tuna

Facing more bad news for the species, managers must take real conservation steps in the western and central Pacific

In the original version of this story, the study on Pacific bluefin tuna’s population decline was incorrectly attributed. The analysis was conducted by Japan's National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries. 

Members of the Northern Committee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) meet in Sapporo, Japan, Aug. 31 to Sept. 3, to determine what they will do about the dismal status of Pacific bluefin tuna. 

As the body responsible for the conservation and management of this iconic species, the Northern Committee must act now to end decades of overfishing and reverse the bluefin population’s severe decline.

Recent news about Pacific bluefin tuna has been bad, and the latest science shows there are no signs of improvement. Like other apex predators, these fish take several years to mature and start reproducing, which makes them particularly vulnerable to overfishing. Decimated by decades of overfishing, the population has fallen 96 percent from unfished levels—and the numbers continue to drop.

Recent studies indicate that if fishery managers stay the current course, without additional conservation actions, the Pacific bluefin will face a dire future. The International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean (ISC) found evidence that the number of fish born in 2014 may be the lowest ever recorded. In an earlier analysis, the ISC noted that 98 percent of total catch is made up of juveniles. That means that fishermen catch the overwhelming majority of bluefin before the fish reach maturity and, therefore, before they produce any offspring.

In addition, a study Japan's National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries released in April concluded that under current management measures, the Pacific bluefin population will continue to decline, and it could soon tumble to the lowest level ever. This further drop—or potential collapse—would be due in large part to a management failure among the nations responsible for this species and the fishery.

The Northern Committee, as part of its conservation mandate under the WCPFC, must make decisions this year that would spur the rebuilding of Pacific bluefin. This includes reaching agreement on a long-term harvest strategy for the species. This strategy would implement a set of pre-agreed actions by the WCPFC designed to return the population to healthy levels. To be successful, the harvest strategy should include these key components:

  • A goal of returning the population to healthy levels—at least eight times greater than the current size—by 2030.
  • Management actions that, when implemented, lead to a high probability of successful rebuilding—and a low risk of returning to dangerously depleted levels.
  • A set of science-based catch limits and other necessary measures to meet the plan’s goals.

To avoid further declines while a long-term harvest strategy is being developed, members of the Northern Committee also should recommend that countries reduce the adult bluefin catch by 50 percent for next year’s fishing season and beyond to promote the growth of the next generation of fish.

The Northern Committee, the ISC, and the WCPFC all have said that a long-term recovery and management plan for Pacific bluefin is important, but these statements mean little unless they are followed by concrete actions. This year, the committee must take the first step toward progress by recommending effective, precautionary, and science-based measures to rebuild and maintain a healthy Pacific bluefin tuna population and fishery.

Without such action, the international community will be forced to look at other options, including a global trade ban for this species. This fishery and population cannot be allowed to collapse because of insufficient action by fisheries managers.

Amanda Nickson directs the global tuna conservation program for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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