Pacific bluefin fisheries need to brace themselves


Sean Murphy, SeafoodSource online editor

Published on
August 14, 2015

There has been plenty of stock data available for some time to show populations of Pacific bluefin tuna, like its Atlantic cousin, are struggling, but a new analysis suggests it could be a lot worse than activists and the industry thought. Fixing the problem may put a demand on fisheries too, even those who have been doing everything right.

A recent stock assessment shows that Pacific bluefin recruitment levels in 2012 were estimated to be at their 8th lowest point in the past 61 years. That news alone has prompted calls for stricter fishing rules, but a new analysis, released earlier this year by Japan’s National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries studying data up to 2014 estimated that the number of juvenile recruitments in the stocks is dropping even more.

“The negative impact of the possible very low recruitment in 2014 to the stock rebuilding was not negligible,” the institute wrote in its report. “Even though the reason for the recruitment variability is not fully understood, the possibility that Pacific bluefin might be entering a low recruitment period needs to be duly noted and therefore it is getting further important to monitor each year’s recruitment and reflect it timely to the projection.”

It gets worse: the analysis predicts spawning stocks will keep dropping, perhaps into 2018, and over the next 10 years, there’s a 35 percent chance stocks will decline to record-breaking lows.

Amanda Nickson, director of global tuna conservation at Pew Charitable Trusts, thinks she knows what the problem is – a lack of adequate management over an area way too big for one regulatory body to handle.

“At this point, we’re looking at a situation where the management measures in place simply aren’t enough,” she said.

It’s easy to blame fisheries when a stock declines, and Nickson believes overfishing is a big part of the problem, but she is not calling out any one fishery as the culprit, nor should she. The reality is, bluefin is the target of Pacific fisheries that have a combined territory of thousands of square miles. Even if each and every fishery individually is acting responsibly – and there’s no reason to suspect they are not – it’s still possible for there to be a cumulative negative effect, albeit an inadvertent one. Nickson noted that fish know nothing of geopolitical boundaries, and Pacific bluefin tuna stocks freely migrate from one fishing zone to another, blissfully unaware that they are being whittled away a bit at a time.

“Really, this fish sort of runs the gauntlet,” Nickson said.

This behavior makes it tough to point fingers – at least at humans – and that’s one of the reasons regional fisheries management organizations exist. Even then, it’s not the job of one such organization to monitor and fix this particular problem, but two: The Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. Both groups have to work together, and there is a history of these groups doing just that – they have helped set catch limits before to control the populations of many species, including Pacific bluefin, but if the latest analysis is to be believed, it’s not enough for bluefin, at least not yet.

“No matter how you look at it, we’re in the situation we’re in now, and it needs to change,” Nickson said.

Despite bluefin fisheries in the Pacific meaning well and following the rules, Nickson said she thinks the only way to halt the downward slide is to lower catch limits. She said she thinks three to five years of lower limits would be enough, and claims “We’re not talking about a really big timeline.”

Whether that’s a burden to the fisheries depends entirely on how much catch limits need to go down. No doubt someone’s livelihood will be on the line, even if lower limits are only needed for three to five years. That said, if the analysis is correct, everyone’s livelihood – at least those depending upon Pacific bluefin – could be at risk. No matter what, there’s a good chance the bluefin fisheries are about to take a hit, and for those already hurting from catch limits, it might be about to go from bad to worse.

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