Despite the dire state of the Pacific bluefin tuna population, the countries tasked with managing its future have failed once again to act to end overfishing or to ensure the recovery of the heavily depleted species. The latest meeting of the Northern Committee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) ended Sept. 2 without agreement on basic measures to protect Pacific bluefin, even though a recent stock assessment found that the population is at just 2.6 percent of its historic high. That’s down more than 97 percent from the levels before fishing began.
Meeting in Fukuoka, Japan, the committee had several options for action, but members could not reach consensus on a plan to reduce fishing to sustainable levels, protect juvenile fish, and rebuild the stock to a healthy status. That meant they did not fulfill their own 2015 commitment to agree on key elements of a long-term management framework to ensure the population’s recovery.
With this species on the brink of collapse, swift action is essential. But committee members did not even follow advice from their own scientists, who recommended greater protections for juvenile Pacific bluefin. A proposal that would have implemented these recommendations by decreasing the allowed catch of small fish was blocked with little discussion. This will have a large impact on the population’s future because the stock will not rebuild to healthy levels unless more juveniles are given a chance to reproduce.
Indeed, one step taken in Fukuoka will make matters worse. The committee agreed to a process that would allow countries to sidestep catch limits currently in place, further weakening existing regulations that continue to permit dangerously high levels of overfishing. Under these new rules, nations will be able to increase their fishing effort on adult fish, putting greater pressure on the already decimated population.
In July, Pew called for a two-year moratorium on commercial fishing of the species. The lack of action at the Northern Committee meeting makes such a step all the more urgent. Only a halt in fishing can immediately stop overfishing and give managers time to develop and implement a true rebuilding plan.
Once again, the committee has decided not to take the necessary actions that scientists recommend to protect one of the most valuable fisheries on the planet. But there may be a glimmer of hope. When the full WCPFC meets in December, it will have the opportunity to act and correct the failure of the Northern Committee.
Members of the commission have a responsibility to ensure that actual conservation-based measures are put in place. It is critical that they move this year to rectify the inaction we have just seen at the meeting of the Northern Committee. In the meantime, the overfishing of Pacific bluefin continues unabated, and a rebuilt, healthy population is further from view.
Amanda Nickson directs global tuna conservation for The Pew Charitable Trusts.