Higher Fishing Limits Proposed for Pacific Bluefin Tuna Would Threaten Fragile Population

Modest growth is a sign the recovery plan is working, not a signal to boost catch quotas

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Higher Fishing Limits Proposed for Pacific Bluefin Tuna Would Threaten Fragile Population
Higher Fishing Limits Proposed for Pacific Bluefin Tuna Would Threaten Fragile Population
Bortoli Manfred Getty Images

Pacific bluefin, the single most highly priced tuna species on Earth, is also the most heavily depleted. In the midst of a fragile, 20-year recovery plan for the species—in which the population has grown to 4.5% of its historic size—Japan has for the fourth year in a row proposed an increase in fishing limits, going against scientific advice and common sense. When the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC)—the regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) that together form the joint working group responsible for co-management of Pacific bluefin, including recovery efforts—meet from 27 to 29 July, member governments should push back on this proposal and counter it with the declaration that now is not the time to increase quotas.

Prized by fishers and consumers, particularly in Japan, Pacific bluefin is worth $38.30 per kilogram at its final point of sale. Fishing pressure has been so high that by 2010, the population was at less than 2% of its original size. The recovery plan adopted in 2017 by the WCPFC and IATTC was a critical first step towards helping the species rebuild.

Japan’s latest proposal to the joint working group to increase the commercial fishing quota for Pacific bluefin tuna by 20% contradicts the advice of the RFMOs’ own scientists to maintain current limits set as part of the 20-year recovery plan. In fact, because of the complex way that management rules are written and implemented, Japan’s proposed increase could add up to catches being 70% higher than today's. Increasing the quota in response to these early signs of growth—which is still only the first step in a long process—would threaten recovery and be a failure of management.

Instead of another round of annual quota deliberations, this year the joint working group has the opportunity to focus on the long-term work it already committed to as part of the 2017 recovery plan. In line with this commitment, governments should be developing a precautionary harvest strategy, which would set scientifically derived catch limits for multiple years at a time. In particular, IATTC and WCPFC should resume the development of the management strategy evaluation of the management strategy evaluation (MSE), a critical tool that, as part of a harvest strategy, allows scientists to test which management approaches will best meet their long-term objectives for the fishery and population.

IATTC and WCPFC both committed to adopt a harvest strategy for Pacific bluefin tuna by 2024, and the joint working group has had more than enough time to start its development in earnest. As the group tasked with providing overall guidance on the MSE, it needs to once again clarify to the RFMOs’ scientists that now is the time for the MSE model to be built. This starts with outlining a detailed workplan to take the process from an agreement of management objectives to implementation of a harvest strategy starting in 2025, guiding the species to a full recovery that is sustained into the future.

The joint working group has rejected proposals for increased quotas for Pacific bluefin every time they have been submitted to either group since the recovery plan was put in place, and for good reason. It is time to stop the wasteful, time-consuming yearly quota battles and move forward with a more efficient and effective harvest strategy approach. Deadlines to develop and implement the harvest strategy are looming, and now managers must work together to finalize the effort they started several years ago. This transition to a long-term vision and action plan is essential to the future of the Pacific bluefin population, and the fisheries and communities that depend on it.

Rachel Hopkins works on Pew’s international fisheries project.