From the iconic bluefin tunas of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern oceans to the smaller, more common skipjack and yellowfin, tunas traverse the ocean year-round as both predator and prey, serving as vital links in marine food webs. Worth more than US$42 billion per year, the catch of the top seven tuna species is also critical to coastal economies, supporting fisheries and trade jobs around the world.
Every 2 May is World Tuna Day, which should serve as more motivation to highlight the importance of these fish to the marine ecosystem—and the global economy.
But despite this environmental and commercial value, regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), which are responsible for determining how many tuna can be taken from the ocean to ensure healthy populations, haven’t been very successful in securing the long-term sustainability of these fish.
Short-sighted management threatens species’ health
Atlantic bluefin, Atlantic bigeye, and Pacific bluefin tunas are together worth billions of dollars each year, in large part because they are in demand for high-quality sushi and sashimi. Sadly, that demand, along with poor decision-making by RFMOs, has driven overfishing and depletion of those populations.
The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which manages Atlantic bluefin and bigeye, has for many years made decisions that threaten recovery of the species and sustainability of the fisheries. At one point, ICCAT’s management of Atlantic bluefin was so irresponsible that an independent review called the organization “an international disgrace.” In the past decade, ICCAT members have worked towards a recovery plan, resulting in increases in bluefin abundance. But in 2017 and 2018, ICCAT took drastic steps backward when it increased fishing quotas—even though there was no confirmation that the Atlantic tunas’ populations had fully recovered—and removed monitoring and control measures that could have prevented overfishing and illegal activity.
The poor management of Atlantic bluefin illustrates the need to approach other fisheries in the Convention area with more precaution. However, ICCAT’s management of bigeye has not been much better. Although Atlantic bigeye is highly depleted, the current quota is still too high, and regulations are not being enforced. Last year, ICCAT managers failed to agree to a recovery plan and actually loosened fishing rules further. This could lead to even more Atlantic bigeye overfishing and further delay recovery.
In the Pacific Ocean, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) have only recently adopted a long-term recovery plan for Pacific bluefin tuna, whose population has dropped by more than 96 percent from its historic high because of decades of overfishing.
It took years for WCPFC and IATTC managers to publicly recognize the problem and agree to the plan, and even the species’ severely depleted state hasn’t stopped some countries from proposing that catch be increased. Making matters worse, the plan lacks ambition, requiring that Pacific bluefin be rebuilt to only 20 percent of its historic level by 2034—a long timeline for a fish that can reproduce quickly and, if managed properly, could recover far more during that time span. Other species, such as Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna, are also at risk because of lax management.
By continuing to set fishing limits on a year-to-year basis, managers across the RFMOs are often driven by short-term demands from fishing operations and markets, instead of the need to promote healthy fisheries over the long term, and therefore fail to make precautionary decisions.
Moving forward on science-based management
RFMOs need to move from the current short-sighted quota system and adopt a new way to sustainably manage fisheries: procedures known as harvest strategies that use science-based models to set pre-agreedfishing limits that automatically change based on the health of fish populations. Some tuna RFMOs are starting to use harvest strategies—for example, for southern bluefin and north Atlantic albacore—but the transition needs to be faster and more widespread among tuna management bodies.
By using harvest strategies to agree to objectives such as rebuilding an overfished population, maintaining the current catch, or increasing fishing profits, RFMOs free themselves from having to make yearly quota decisions and can focus on long-term sustainability. As the RFMOs move forward in this effort, The Pew Charitable Trusts will continue working to ensure that the strategies they adopt are strong, precautionary, and science-based and include sustainability as a pillar of fisheries management.
World Tuna Day is the perfect time to recognize why these incredible species should be fished sustainably. With the right implementation of harvest strategies, RFMOs can ensure that tunas, and tuna fisheries, thrive for many years to come.
Amanda Nickson directs international fisheries work for The Pew Charitable Trusts.