Pacific bluefin tuna is a species at risk. Despite recent agreement on a rebuilding plan for this valuable fish, the rate of fishing continues at more than twice the sustainable level. Further, four of the five top fishing nations for Pacific bluefin have gone over their catch limits in the past two years, demonstrating little commitment to following the rules and improving the status of the stock.
When the managers responsible for Pacific bluefin tuna meet Sept. 3-7 in Fukuoka, Japan, they must reject a Japanese proposal that would have negative impacts on the population. The meetings are the 14th Regular Session of the Northern Committee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) and the Joint Working Group Meeting on the Management of Pacific Bluefin Tuna, which is composed of WCPFC and Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission decision-makers who jointly manage the species.
These meetings come at a critical time. This year, an updated stock assessment showed that the population of Pacific bluefin remains critically low—just 3.3 percent of its historic, unfished size—and has grown less than 1 percent since the previous assessment in 2016. But despite last year’s historic agreement to rebuild the population to 20 percent of its unfished size by 2034, the United States, Japan, and South Korea surpassed their quotas in 2017, and Mexico has already exceeded its for 2018, extending decades of rampant overfishing that has heavily depleted the species. These overages aren’t just hurting the population: They decrease the accuracy of projections on the state of the stock, because scientists assume that parties follow the rules.
To make matters worse, the most recent assessment had a high degree of uncertainty that greatly affects its predictions on the future of the population. The value of Pacific bluefin recruitment in 2016—an estimate of the number of new fish that year, a number that heavily influences experts’ forecast of the population’s future health—is based on just a single data point. The assessment also includes an overly optimistic assumption that recruitment will increase from the levels consistently seen over the past two decades. Had the assessment used more precautionary levels of recruitment, it would have found only a 3 percent chance that the existing management will lead to a recovery by the 2034 deadline.
Although the latest stock assessment has shown a slight uptick in Pacific bluefin population size, it remains inexcusable for managers to even consider increasing catch limits when countries are overfishing and not respecting quotas. Effective management shouldn’t rely on hope that recruitment will remain high but instead should be based on responsible, sustainable quotas that account for uncertainty about current and future conditions.
At the meetings in Japan, managers also should reject a proposed provision that would allow countries to carry over unused quota from one year to the next. This violates best practices for fisheries management, and, with the uncertainty surrounding Pacific bluefin as a whole, could lead to even more overfishing.
Last year’s adoption of a recovery plan for Pacific bluefin proved to the world that the Northern Committee and Joint Working Group can agree to fix the problems facing the fishery. But that collaboration will be for nothing if managers raise quotas at the first sign of a population increase—even a tiny one racked with uncertainty.
At this year’s meetings, managers and the countries that depend on a healthy Pacific bluefin population must demonstrate their commitment to science-based, precautionary management. If governments want to give this iconic species a real chance at recovery, they must stick to the current management measures and work to stay within existing fishing limits.
Jamie Gibbon is a Pacific bluefin tuna expert for Pew’s global tuna conservation campaign.