One pointed lesson from the suite of problems facing the ocean and marine life is this: Humanity cannot afford to wait until it’s almost too late to help ecosystems and wildlife recover from trouble.
Fishery managers should apply that lesson to north Pacific albacore, a long-time staple of the canned tuna section in grocery stores.
At the start of the 20th century, north Pacific albacore sparked the growth of the United States’ canned tuna industry. Once shunned by fishermen, the mild-flavored fish first hit the market in Southern California and soon eclipsed mackerel and sardines in sales nationwide.
Today, albacore remains popular among consumers and, fortunately, in the Pacific Ocean is neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing—two distinct conditions in the fishery management continuum.
To help maintain the health of the north Pacific fishery—which targets albacore above the equator—the two regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) in charge of setting fishing rules there are developing a harvest strategy, a science-based, pre-agreed framework for setting limits on catch and/or fishing effort. Those RFMOs, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) and Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), have been working on the specifications for this harvest strategy for seven years, and it’s time they adopt it in 2022.
The fish that sparked an industry
The rise of albacore in the canned seafood market started in 1903 when a Southern California businessman developed a new canning process. With its white flesh and mild flavor, albacore invited comparisons to chicken—and Americans embraced it.
Today, north Pacific albacore is caught in substantial quantities by troll and pole-and-line vessels based in ports on the U.S. and Canadian west coasts. Also, longline vessels either target the stock or catch it incidentally while fishing for swordfish or yellowfin or bigeye tunas.
Albacore catches across the north Pacific peaked at roughly 127,000 metric tons in 1976, then fell sharply over the next decade before surging again to about 119,000 metric tons in 1999. Since then, catches have fluctuated, with recent hauls at around 55,000 metric tons annually (averaged over five years). Japan’s fishing vessels catch the most, around 65% of the harvest, followed by the U.S. (19%), Taiwan (8%) and Canada (5%), according to the 2015-2019 catch levels. (See Figure 1.)
IATTC and WCPFC have a history of cooperation on managing north Pacific albacore. For instance, they adopted similar rules in 2005 to freeze the allowed level of fishing effort.
But what if another country wants to start fishing north Pacific albacore? Or if the population’s productivity plummets, perhaps due to shifts in ocean conditions from climate change? Or if new science shows that current estimates of the stock’s health are overly optimistic?
If those or similar scenarios were to play out, the rules in place today very likely would not be enough to prevent a decline in the population, which would be potentially harmful for the relevant individuals and industries.
A harvest strategy is a more predictable and effective way to manage the stock. And in their work since 2015, managers and stakeholders identified a host of objectives for how they’d like to see the fishery perform—including by maximizing catch while keeping a healthy, sustainable amount of albacore in the north Pacific Ocean.
And with the right plan in place, one that includes pre-agreed harvest control rules to keep fishing levels consistent, computer simulations show that north Pacific albacore will stay healthy. But for that to happen, IATTC and WCPFC must move beyond discussions and adopt a full harvest strategy.
IATTC has the first opportunity. Key fishing nations, including the U.S., Canada and Japan, should work together to champion the effort at IATTC by first asking its Scientific Advisory Committee to endorse a harvest strategy at its May meeting, and then presenting a full harvest strategy for adoption by IATTC at its annual Commission meeting this summer. Then, those three countries should take the effort to the WCPFC’s Northern Committee meeting in September and annual Commission meeting for adoption in December.
And as they have in the past, the two RFMOs should cooperate to adopt mirrored strategies, to achieve a common approach to the stock that is important to the members of both organizations. Every year of delay risks the chance of harm being done to a fishery so important to consumers, industries and individuals across the Pacific.
This year should mark a turning point for the management of north Pacific albacore. Nations across the Pacific should embrace the opportunity to keep this stock healthy by supporting RFMOs’ adoption of a harvest strategy.
Grantly Galland is a senior officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project, and Dave Gershman is an officer with The Ocean Foundation’s international fisheries conservation campaign.