January 21, 2015
International Fisheries Commission Fails to Deliver Adequate Protections for Pacific Tuna
BY: Brianna Elliott
This past December, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC)—a 33-member body charged with protecting Pacific tuna—had the opportunity to help recover two Pacific tuna species in trouble at its 11th Regular Session in Apia, Samoa. Instead—and much to the dismay of scientists and conservationists—the WCPFC failed to adequately take action for these wild marine predators, only developing minimal protections for Pacific bluefin tuna and leaving bigeye tuna vulnerable to continued overexploitation.
“Bluefin tuna are in trouble. The science is clear that the Pacific population has been drastically reduced due to overfishing, so it makes sense to seriously cut bluefin catches across the Pacific,” says Oceana Pacific campaign manager and senior scientist Ben Enticknap. “Bluefin tuna are the Ferraris of the ocean—they’re fast, valuable but increasingly rare.”
Fortunately, Pacific bluefin will see some relief from fishing pressure: The new regulations call for harvest rates to remain below 2002 to 2004 annual average levels, and catch rates for tuna weighing less than 66 pounds will be reduced by 50 percent from 2002 to 2004 levels, says Environmental News Service. This move will allow juveniles to have a chance at reproduction before capture, which is necessary to help rebuild the population.
Even though this is a positive step forward for bluefin tuna, the WCPFC did not agree on a long-term recovery plan for the species. Additionally, member parties were unable to agree on protective measures for Pacific bigeye tuna.
Like many tuna populations, these two species are in trouble from overfishing. Pacific bluefin, ranging across the North Pacific Ocean, are at just four percent of pre-fishing levels—overexploited by fishermen using longlines, purse seines and other fishing gear for the sushi trade. And because of incidental capture, or bycatch in the Pacific skipjack purse seine fishery, and overexploitation from the Hawaii longline fishery, the highly-migratory Pacific bigeye tuna are now at 16 percent of their pre-fishing levels, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Of the two tuna species, bluefin are generally larger, live longer and are higher up on the food chain than bigeye, though you may be most familiar with these two species via your dinner plate. The Pacific bigeye tuna is highly coveted by sashimi fans, and sells at the highest price in the Japanese sashimi market out of all of the tropical tuna species, according to NOAA. Likewise, Pacific bluefin tuna—with the first Pacific bluefin tuna of 2015 selling for $37,500 USD in Japan—is prized by both sushi and sashimi lovers as the fattest tuna species, which is generally associated with being higher quality.
“In both cases, conservation efforts need to expand across the Pacific, as an international effort to cut catches and ensure these tuna species can rebuild as quickly as biologically possible,” says Enticknap. “This may mean short term costs for fishermen, but it has to happen for long-term sustainability.”
The new agreements come shortly after other fishery organizations set restrictions for Pacific bluefin tuna in response to a growing international call for action. The U.S. enacted their own reductions for recreational fishermen in the eastern Pacific in November when the U.S. Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) cut catch levels by about 30 percent. Earlier that month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature upgraded Pacific bluefin tuna from least concern to vulnerable on their Red List of Threatened Species.
Oceana testified multiple times at the PFMC meetings, urging that the U.S. cut catch levels by 50 percent—a limit in line with scientific recommendations from the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. Though the fishery council did not cut catch levels to the level Oceana hoped for, Oceana still thinks the PFMC’s catch reductions are a step in the right direction.
“Pacific bluefin tuna are highly migratory, traveling from one side of the Pacific to the other, all while being targeted by many fishing nations. It’s difficult to agree on regulations, but all of the fishing nations involved need to come together and protect these fish populations before it’s too late,” says Enticknap.
The Pacific bluefin’s cousin—Atlantic bluefins, which are also disappearing due to overfishing and illegal fishing—recently received some protection at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) meeting in Genoa, Italy. Some feared that ICCAT would increase catch limits to a dangerous level since the population recently showed signs of an increase, but fortunately, ICCAT stuck to scientific recommendations. Atlantic bluefin tuna are listed as endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.