Pew seeks US, EU help in rejecting Japanese proposal for Pacific bluefin catch increase

Published on
August 29, 2019

From 2-6 September, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC)’s Northern Committee will meet in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A., with proposals from Japan and South Korea for increased Pacific bluefin catch limits on the agenda.

Pacific bluefin is in the first few years of a recovery plan, which aims to restore the stock to 20 percent of its pre-fishing levels by 2034. Japan, citing a recovery in the stock of juvenile fish in 2017 and 2018, is calling for a quota increase of 10 percent for juvenile Pacific bluefin tuna (weighing less than 30 kilograms) and 20 percent for adult tuna. Last year, the Northern Committee rejected a similar proposal from Japan that would have raised the quota 15 percent across the board. 

Jamie Gibbon, a manager with the international fisheries team at The Pew Charitable Trusts, based in Washington, D.C., spoke with SeafoodSource about why his organization opposes an increase.

SeafoodSource: The proposal being put forward by Japan only concerns one species of bluefin?

Gibbon: Right. There are three species of bluefin, two of which live in the Pacific Ocean: the Pacific bluefin, which is primarily in the northern Pacific; and the Southern bluefin, which is found mainly in Australia and New Zealand and South African waters. This meeting is only talking about Pacific bluefin.

SeafoodSource: And so the quota for Southern bluefin has already been increased? 

Gibbon: Yes. Southern bluefin is managed under what they call a “management procedure” or a “harvest strategy,” where each year they get scientific information, it goes into a formula – an equation – and then it spits out what the quota should be based on the status of the stock. So, it’s actually a really efficient system. As the stock increases, the quota can also increase, all towards the goal of reaching a rebuilding target. So that’s very different from what’s currently happening with Pacific bluefin, where there are these annual quota proposals that sometimes are based on science, sometimes are not, but are subject to a lot of political negotiation and back and forth.

SeafoodSource: Do you think the current situation for Pacific bluefin could qualify for an increase under a harvest strategy?

Gibbon: So that’s the issue that we‘re facing now – is that there’s not been a scientifically tested harvest strategy for Pacific bluefin. So right now, any proposed catch increases – there’s a lot of uncertainty about what that would mean, the effects on the future population. It’s very different from Southern bluefin, where they’ve run a series of models – it’s called MSE, management strategy evaluation, where they have a really good idea of what will happen to the population if the quotas are increased. There is not that certainty for Pacific bluefin, and that’s one of the reasons we’re opposing the proposals to increase the catches at this point, because there’s just too much scientific uncertainty about what that would mean for the future of the population.

SeafoodSource: Is the MSE a very difficult thing to do? If you’ve set up the basic modeling, could you just plug some different numbers into it and get the Pacific bluefin harvest strategy, or do you have to gather much more in-depth data?

Gibbon: No, they try to use simplified models. Usually in the stock assessments they’re very complicated models that try to simulate everything that happens in the population. With these MSE’s, they try to use simpler models, but run a lot more different scenarios. So let’s say – assume that recruitment can vary by 20 percent every year – we’re going to model each level of recruitment and see what that mean for the population under a variety of catch scenarios. So you can actually make it as complicated or as simple as you want, but you really want to find the balance where you have really high confidence that, no matter what strategy you put in place, [it] will make sure that the population will reach that sustainable level. So it’s a process that takes a lot of input from stakeholders – the managers, the fishermen, scientists, NGOs – but really when it’s done, like they’ve shown with Southern bluefin, it can be a really powerful management tool.

SeafoodSource: Does The Pew Charitable Trusts agree with the basic idea that the stock is increasing?

Gibbon: There were two recent stock assessments, one in 2016, one in 2018, and those show that there was a very small increase in the population. It went from about 2.6 percent of its historic size to 3.4 percent. While that may be a small increase, it is all within the margin of error of the model. So, certainly it’s not justification for raising the quotas at this point.

SeafoodSource: Do you have the feeling that the U.S. has already decided to block this?

Gibbon: I really wish I had a crystal ball and I could tell you one way or another. We have been speaking with the U.S. [delegation] and we have been advocating to keep the quotas where they are now, to not increase the catch limits. But they certainly have pressure from their own fishermen who catch Pacific bluefin off the West Coast of the United States. So, while we hope that they will block this proposal, I think it’s not a foregone conclusion.

SeafoodSource: In the rules of this RFMO (regional fisheries management organization), does it only take one member to block a proposal? 

Gibbon: Yes, all proposals have to be adopted by consensus. 

SeafoodSource: Last year, Japan proposed an across-the-board increase for juveniles and adults of 15 percent. This year, they’ve changed it to 10 percent for juveniles and 20 for larger tuna. Is that a better plan in that they preserve more juveniles?

Gibbon: it ultimately doesn’t make much of a difference. Another portion of that Japanese proposal is that it would actually allow them to switch some of their juvenile catch limit to an adult catch limit. So, it would actually allow them to do a lot of shifting around. It’s very unclear what that would actually mean for the population and the chances for recovery. So again, there’s too much uncertainty to support a proposal like that.

SeafoodSource: Japan set a catch limit for juveniles a few years ago, but for a couple of years, they failed to stay within it because they operate set-nets for mackerel and they can’t really control the bycatch they get out of it. But they are getting stricter and saying they may penalize fishermen or shut down the fishery if they go over. It has become a choke species. How should Japan deal with that?

Gibbon: Certainly we are not going to tell Japan how to domestically manage its fisheries, but there are options other than shutting down the set-net fisheries, and one of the ways they could do it is they could allocate more quota for that juvenile catch to those set nets and take it from the purse-seiners who are catching the small tuna that then go into the tuna ranches. Those purse-seiners can be selective. They can choose which species to target and how much bluefin they want to catch. So, there are options that Japan could do domestically, other than asking for more overall quota.

SeafoodSource: Are there other countries that might also reject this proposal at the meeting, or are all the other members, like Taiwan and South Korea, supporting an increase?

Gibbon: South Korea has its own proposal to increase the catch this year. Actually their proposal is to increase 25 percent, for both juvenile and adult fish. So, we expect them to support the Japanese proposal at a minimum. But we’ve also seen members like the European Union, Canada, the Cook Islands, the U.S., who have expressed concerns about raising the quota when the population is so low. So we would expect and hope to see similar opposition from those members this year.

There’s this proposal from Japan, and there’s one from Korea. There’s also a proposal from the United States to start an agreement on the elements of the harvest strategies, like the one that is in place for Southern bluefin. So we would really encourage all the members of the Northern Committee to put their focus this year on the long-term sustainable management of the population, and less on the immediate increase in the catch, to try to get Pacific bluefin to the place where Southern bluefin is now, where there’s a predictable management system and there’s not this back-and-forth quota fight each and every year.

Photo courtesy of The Pew Charitable Trusts  

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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