The population of the iconic western Atlantic bluefin tuna—the giant fish featured in fishing reality shows and at the top of many sushi menus—has declined and is experiencing overfishing, according to a new stock assessment by scientists at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).
When the last assessment was conducted in 2017, ICCAT’s scientists carefully explained to fishery managers that the quota the Commission was set to adopt for the western Atlantic Ocean—2,350 metric tons—would lead to a decline in the western bluefin population and would necessitate a lower quota in 2020. However, Commission members ignored that warning and raised the quota. And the latest assessment shows that the population has indeed declined—by an even greater magnitude than scientists expected. Interestingly, the decision to boost the quota didn’t even pay off economically: According to a new report from Pew, the price of bluefin has declined in recent years, likely due to a substantial oversupply in the global marketplace—and that was before the market impacts related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the next eight weeks, ICCAT member governments will negotiate western bluefin quotas and decide on a quota for next year and possibly beyond. The only government proposal on the table—from the U.S.—does not specify a 2021 quota recommendation. This leaves the door open for a rollover of the existing limit of 2,350 metric tons, which the science clearly states would result in a 94% chance of overfishing that year. In fact, ICCAT’s scientists have said that any quota larger than 1,000 metric tons will lead to further decline and will require greater catch reductions in future years.
That said, a proposal from the chair of ICCAT’s subsidiary body charged with negotiating bluefin catch limits, to adopt an interim total allowable catch (TAC) for 2021, has at least a 50% chance of ending and preventing overfishing. Although that’s not a high probability of success, it is significantly better than the 6% chance under a quota rollover scenario. At a time when negotiations are electronic versus in person, and hammering out disagreements is much harder than in years past, the chair’s proposal represents a strong compromise. Importantly, it also meets the minimum threshold for recovery under U.S. law for managing fisheries, something the U.S. proposal does not guarantee.
The U.S., Canada, and Japan are the primary fishers of and markets for western Atlantic bluefin. It is critical that these countries embrace their roles as ICCAT leaders and support the chair’s proposal to cut the TAC and end overfishing. For the U.S., that would mean withdrawing its proposal.
If they don’t, other ICCAT parties may need to step up as voices for conservation to persuade the Commission to adopt the chair’s sensible plan.
ICCAT must stop raising quotas at the slightest sign of good news, as it did in 2017, and opposing decreases when the news is unequivocally bad. Instead, the Commission should focus managers’ and scientists’ attention on advancing harvest strategies—a more stable, predictable, and science-based management approach that would significantly increase the likelihood of this population rebuilding and stabilizing at a sustainable level.
Western Atlantic bluefin is worth at least $20 million to fishing operations and is a vital part of the ocean ecosystem. ICCAT must move forward to safeguard the stock in 2021 and into the future.
Grantly Galland works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.