Each year at the end of May, commercial purse seine vessels are allowed to begin fishing in the Mediterranean Sea for Atlantic bluefin tuna, an activity controlled by catch limits to ensure that these bluefin tuna continue to recover from decades of overfishing.
And, each year, shortly after fishing starts, someone in the fishing industry declares a “record” season. Indeed, the director of Spain’s bluefin tuna fleet was quoted in Undercurrent News recently as saying that the speed with which his fishermen caught their quota is proof that “the resource is totally recovered, there's no doubt about it.”
That a large number of well-equipped and technologically advanced vessels can catch a few thousand tons of tuna in just a few days doesn’t say much about the population’s health. While there is no denying that several years of strict, science-based quotas have helped the eastern population of Atlantic bluefin rebound, the extent of the recovery remains uncertain. When scientists last assessed the stock, in 2014, they were confident that the population had grown, but they stressed that they could not tell precisely how much or how quickly.
Further, the fishing season is timed to coincide with the peak spawning season in the Mediterranean, when eastern giant bluefin gather in large schools in these waters. It makes them an easy target, especially for the industrial purse seine boats prepositioned to catch spawning fish as soon as the season opens.
Scientists have warned members of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) that there are too many vessels chasing bluefin in the Mediterranean. They wrote last year that they are still “concerned about current capacity which could easily harvest catch volumes well in excess of the rebuilding strategy adopted by the Commission.”
It’s not just excess fishing capacity that poses a problem. Turkey has already said it plans to fish an additional 515.73 metric tons beyond its annual quota. That’s 73 percent more than was agreed to during last November’s ICCAT meeting.
Fishery managers from several countries are unhappy with the prospect of Turkey fishing extra tonnage. Even an unnamed industry representative, quoted in Undercurrent News, sees this as a “very serious problem,” one that could lead to catch rates beyond the bounds of scientific advice in just a few years.
By any responsible consideration of the facts, eastern bluefin tuna need the protection of precautionary, science-based management. In addition to ensuring that catches are fully in line with scientific advice, this includes finally implementing a system to electronically track all Atlantic bluefin catch and the major sources of trade to reduce the loopholes that allow for persistent illegal fishing. This electronic system is almost ready to go, but ICCAT has not set a new deadline for mandatory use.
Filling the media with unscientific speculation about the state of the Mediterranean population won’t help bluefin fully recover. Only leadership based on a long-term commitment to precautionary management of this species will result in a sustainable fishery.
Amanda Nickson directs global tuna conservation for The Pew Charitable Trusts.