How a Fabled Fish Could Complete a Remarkable Comeback

Thunnus thynnus, Scombridae, school of juveniles, The Azores, Atlantic Ocean
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The Atlantic bluefin tuna has an incredible history. From the time ancient Mediterranean civilizations discovered this fish—which grows from the size of a grain of rice to that of a Clydesdale—to years of overfishing and mismanagement, the arc of the species represents not only the damage that people can do to nature but also how they can establish policies for the good of the ocean. Now, in November, the very governments responsible for managing this remarkable fish have the opportunity to take an important step to secure its sustainability.

The problems facing Atlantic bluefin tuna today began with too much fishing. For decades, the species has been highly prized—and priced—for sushi and sashimi markets, particularly in Japan. This drove an explosion of fishing from the Gulf of Mexico, where the western population of Atlantic bluefin spawns, to the Mediterranean Sea, where the eastern population spawns. The Mediterranean is also where the advent of bluefin “ranching” in the 1990s caused a huge—and detrimental—increase in fishing. Ranching involves catching wild fish and keeping them in huge pens, where they’re fattened up to Tokyo’s exacting raw fish standards. The millions of dollars generated by ranching were a large reason why fishery managers prioritized maximizing catch. 

Over the past three decades, managers, who represent their individual governments at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), frequently adopted catch limits as high as double the amount scientists advised would be sustainable. At the same time, illegal fishing in the Mediterranean was rampant, accounting for roughly the same volume of fish that were landed lawfully. The result: By 2009, the Atlantic bluefin population was approaching total collapse. That year, Prince Albert II of Monaco called for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora to ban all international trade of Atlantic bluefin—a proposal that nearly passed.

Flash forward to today. While the western population status has been slower to improve, the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean population is well into a successful recovery—a turnaround that some fisheries experts thought was almost too good to be true.

How did that happen so quickly?

In part, because of the work of non-governmental organizations and civil society. Over the years, stakeholders have encouraged governments to adopt science-based fishery management measures and develop tighter tracking of bluefin catch and trade. As the science on bluefin populations developed, ICCAT began to adopt policies that substantially curbed illegal fishing and set catch limits low enough to allow the population to recover. As a result, the population in the eastern Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean is no longer overfished, which in turn has allowed managers to increase catch limits from 13,500 metric tons in 2010 to 36,000 metric tons in 2022.

Still, the Atlantic bluefin recovery is not yet secure. ICCAT can significantly guard against collapse for this billion-dollar fish by adopting a “management procedure” (also known as a “harvest strategy”) for the species: a set of pre-agreed actions, such as raising or lowering catch limits, that are automatically triggered based on the status of the bluefin population. ICCAT will meet next month in Vale do Lobo, Portugal, where it could adopt a management procedure for Atlantic bluefin. In advance of the meeting, ICCAT’s own scientists just finished drafting such procedures for the Commission to consider.

The European Union, whose fleets catch more than half of the bluefin taken in the entire Atlantic, and Japan, whose importers buy the vast majority of it, must show leadership and support for this management procedure if it is to succeed. And the United States, Canada, Morocco, and others also have roles to play in developing and agreeing to this new rule.

If scientists’ forecasts are accurate, adopting this harvest strategy could help stabilize fisheries and markets, in part by lowering the chances that future halts to fishing would be needed. Consumers would have more confidence in the sustainability of the bluefin population from the eastern Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, and the management procedure would even allow the western bluefin population to recover. Adoption this year is therefore the rare win-win-win for the seafood industry, consumers, and ocean health.

In a few weeks, fishery managers can ensure sustainability of Atlantic bluefin for many years to come. This ICCAT meeting could mark a turning point not only for the species, but also for how fisheries managers oversee highly sought after—and vulnerable—fish populations around the world.

Rachel Hopkins works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.

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