In $40 Billion Tuna Industry, Revenues Fell Despite Increased Catch

Better management could protect long-term health and value of species

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In $40 Billion Tuna Industry, Revenues Fell Despite Increased Catch
Many commercially important tunas, such as Atlantic bluefin, are depleted after decades of unsustainable fishing.
Solvin Zankl/Wild Wonders of Europe

Tunas are among the most commercially valuable fish species on Earth, playing a vital role in healthy ocean ecosystems and supporting livelihoods around the globe. A new report from Pew, “Netting Billions 2020: A Global Tuna Valuation,” shows that the constant growth in fishing for tunas worldwide could actually be hurting the industries and communities that depend on them, in addition to threatening marine ecosystems.

In the report, which builds on one published in 2016, we estimate that global catch of commercially important tuna species increased from 4.6 million metric tons in 2012 to 5.2 million in 2018 but that the total value paid by final consumers declined by nearly $1 billion—to $40.8 billion—over that time. The ideal catch level, economically speaking, may not always be as high as the scientifically determined maximum sustainable yield—the largest catch that can sustainably be taken, year after year.

Table 1

Total Value of Seven Most Commercially Important Tuna Species

Year Catch (million metric tons) Dock value (billion US$) End value (billion US$)
2012 4.6 $12.2 $41.6
2014 5.0 $9.8 $42.2
2016 5.0 $11.3 $37.5
2018 5.2 $11.7 $40.8

Note: Dock values and end values are in nominal dollars.

Source: Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management Ltd., 2019

Global tuna landings and values

By species

Skipjack tuna is the most commonly caught species by number and weight—accounting for more than half of the total volume of tuna landed globally but commanding a relatively low price per metric ton compared with larger tuna species. The bluefin species, which represent a very small portion of the total catch, are by far the most valuable per metric ton. At the final point of sale, Pacific bluefin was the highest priced of all tuna species in 2018, at about $38,000 per metric ton.

By fishing gear

Purse seine vessels continue to land the majority of tunas worldwide, capturing more than half of the dock and end value of all tuna fisheries. While catch by purse seine vessels was more valuable overall, longline-caught tuna was priced higher per metric ton. Other fishing gears—including pole and line, gillnet, and troll—account for fewer landings and therefore smaller values for the fisheries.

By region

The Pacific holds the world’s largest and most valuable tuna fisheries, worth a combined end value of more than $26 billion annually. In 2018, 66% of tuna landings worldwide came from this region with sales making up almost two-thirds of the global dock and end values for each year studied. However, tuna from the Southern Ocean has the highest price per metric ton and lowest total value due to the very small volumes of Southern bluefin.

Falling prices for overfished species

In 2018, populations of eastern Pacific yellowfin, Pacific bluefin, Atlantic bigeye, Indian Ocean yellowfin, and Southern bluefin were overfished, meaning these populations were reduced below scientifically recommended levels. That year, the catch of these stocks was worth a combined $8.5 billion at the final point of sale.

Tuna regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) and fishing nations continue to drive unsustainable stock depletion through policies that prioritize short-term profits and prevent recovery of the populations. By adopting management measures and recovery plans focused on improving long-term health of the species and reducing catch, RFMOs could maximize the long-term value of their fisheries, we found in the report.

The path forward

As a first—and big—step toward helping depleted stocks recover and protecting their value, tuna RFMOs should adopt a management system called harvest strategies, also known as management procedures. Harvest strategies are pre-agreed frameworks for decision-making and are an alternative to traditional measures that set fishing limits on a yearly basis, often with little regard for the long-term health of tuna populations and only after time-consuming, contentious negotiations. Harvest strategies use scientific evidence to directly guide management decisions and can help rebuild species to healthy levels to preserve or enhance their market value.

Successful fisheries management also requires well-developed monitoring programs that include full observer coverage on board vessels. Electronic monitoring (EM) is a proven way to expand observer coverage, improve catch data, and assess vessels’ compliance with RFMO requirements. Fishery managers should develop and adopt EM standards and programs to help ensure effective compliance—and include meaningful consequences for noncompliance with fisheries rules.

“Netting Billions 2020” clearly shows why sustainable management of tuna fisheries is critical to protect the $40 billion tuna industry and the livelihoods it supports worldwide. To safeguard tuna stocks and preserve their economic value, RFMOs must adopt science-based management strategies, improve fisheries oversight, ensure compliance, and levy appropriate penalties for infractions. Without these measures, unsustainable fishing could lead to irreparable harm to ecosystems and industries that depend on tunas. Improving fisheries management would support the recovery of fish stocks and secure their substantial economic value for the long-term.

Grantly Galland is an officer and Raiana McKinney is an associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries team.

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