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Plight of Bluefin Tuna in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans

By Andrew Burgon /
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January 1, 2015

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The Plight of Bluefin Tuna is a Story of Insatiable Appetite, Mismanagement and Greed… But There is Hope

Plight of Bluefin Tuna fisherman and tuna
Image Public Domain

“It’s abundantly clear to me that overfishing is pushing our oceans towards an irreversible collapse.” Ted Danson

The plight of bluefin tuna has been making headlines for decades. It is one of the majestic rulers of the sea that has been fighting for it’s life in the great oceans of the world. It’s a remarkable fish with one huge liability. It’s just too damn tasty for it’s own good. The world’s insatiable appetite for it’s flesh and it’s money making potential has had a devastating impact on it’s numbers.

The Plight of the Bluefin Tuna: A Profile of this Remarkable Fish

There are three species of bluefin. Atlantic, Pacific and Southern.

The Bluefin tuna is no ordinary fish. They are superb swimmers thanks to a generous amount of muscle in their body, a powerful heart and ramjet-like ventilation system. They can accelerate faster than a Ferrari and when pursuing prey they can sustain bursts of speed up to 100 km/h.

These fish are the F111 fighter jets of the ocean. They have retractable fins allowing them to move through the water with little drag and hunt down schools of herring, mackerel and eels. They can dive up to 4,000 feet.

The largest bluefin tuna can weigh up to 635kg and measure 15ft. Their life span up to 40 years.

Depending on their age female bluefin tuna are thought to produce anywhere from one million to 30 million eggs each spawning season.

Most notable for many is how good they taste. Tuna sandwich and a hot coffee, anyone? The greatest connoisseurs are perhaps the Japanese who can talk about the flesh of the tuna like people talk about red wine.

A Challenging Gauntlet That’s Rigged Overwhelmingly in Our Favor

The bluefin tuna are migratory fish. Those in the Atlantic, for example, will spawn in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean and feed as far north as the Artic Circle. A 15 year old specimen may have swum as much as a million miles.

In that journey they must make their way around multiple threats.

They have unwittingly won the admiration of recreational sports fishermen around the world who would love nothing more than to land a big one in their boat. This is the least of their worries though.

The greatest threat are large and sophisticated purse seine ships that close drawstring nets around schooling fish.

Then their are the longline fleets that throw out a long line with numerous hooks attached.

Pole-and-line rigs are yet another threat where many fishermen use hand held poles to catch the tuna.

Many of the fish caught will find themselves in fattening cages that began dotting the seascape in 1996. Some of them measure 50m (165ft) across. Adult and juvenile Tuna are captured and dumped into these cages where they are fattened up like turkey’s for the slaughter.

Another problem is the sheer scale of fishing and the technology implemented. Back in 2006 fishing was being conducted over the entire surface of the Mediterranean Sea. High-tech tuna boats use sonar and airplane / helicopter spotters to find schools of tuna.

The good old days prior to 1965 where three to six year old bluefin tuna were plentiful are gone for many fisheries. Now they have to settle for one to three year olds.

The Plight of the Bluefin Tuna: Numerous Obstacles

An alarm was raised (not the first time) by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) in 2009. They affirmed that Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks had declined significantly over the last 40 years. In the Eastern Atlantic by 72% and in the Western Atlantic by 82%.

Despite this the global bluefin tuna industry didn’t come to a screeching halt. It was like an out-of-control juggernaut and it was going to be no small job to reign it in.

Over the next few years the picture was far from rosy. Some fisheries were accused of not paying enough attention to scientific advice or of failing to implement measures that would encourage bluefin population growth.

As for conservation measures that were considered beneficial there were reports of them being widely flouted. A huge black market for the fish arose despite international protection efforts. Some governments particularly in Europe were reluctant to do anything radical about the situation.

In a post by David Jolly of the New York Times in October 2011 he quotes a study commisioned by the Pew Environment Group.

According to the study illegal fishing for bluefin was rampant. That it was estimated that the amount of eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna caught and sold in 2010 exceeded the official quota by 141 percent. That fisheries were underreporting how much they were catching.

Fast forward to 2013. The International Scientific Committee revealed in their report that the Pacific bluefin were at 3.6 percent of its unfished level. The finger was pointed at overfishing and government mismanagement.

Members of two international bodies responsible for managing Pacific bluefin fisheries – the IATTC and WCPFC – had failed to decreased the catch quota to more sustainable levels.

Also it was pointed out that 90 percent of the Pacific bluefin tuna that were being caught were juveniles that hadn’t reproduced. That doesn’t bode well for their future.

The Plight of the Bluefin Tuna in 2015: Conservation Tug-of-War

The U.S. and international fisheries for western Atlantic bluefin tuna are now highly regulated. The 2014 catch level was expected to support continued growth and recovery of the stocks.

Measures have been put in place to help thwart under-reporting of catches and any other skulduggery. This is done through a catch documentation scheme that helps ensure that everyone in the bluefin tuna business remains compliant on the water, in port and at the marketplace. It also allows for trade tracking for individual shipments of fish.

The Atlantic bluefin tuna have made a bit of a comeback though one wonders whether it has been at the expense of the Pacific bluefin tuna. If one kind of tuna is well-protected in one part of the world and the other is not the ramifications are obvious.

In November 2014, the International Commision on the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) agreed to raise the quota on western Atlantic bluefin for the first time in more than a decade. From 1750 to 2000 tonnes.

This boost in numbers is thanks to an increase in the estimated bluefin population due to strict preservation measures imposed in the 1990’s. It’s a controversial move though with some scientists and environmentalists saying it’s too soon and over-optimistic.

In October 2014, the Inter American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) decided to half the catch quotas for Pacific Bluefin Tuna in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

On December 3, 2014, Pacific fishing nations reached agreement on new rules for the conservation of Pacific Bluefin tuna. Fleets are to keep catches below the 2002-2004 annual average levels. Catches of bluefin tuna under 30kg each are to be reduced to 50 percent of the 2002-2004 limit.

The Western & Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) are pushing for China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan to begin supplying basic catch and effort data for their fishing fleets.

The Plight of Bluefin Tuna: Japan Regulates Itself

The Japan Fisheries Agency has also been making an effort over the last five to six years to come up with measures to moderate catches of bluefin.

Limits were imposed in 2011 on domestic Japanese fishermen using large, encircling purse seine nets. This has reduced the catch of juveniles by more than a quarter during the summer spawning season in the Sea of Japan.

It has also heeded the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission’s “effort limits” such as limiting the number of fishing vessels .

Caps have been placed on the number of tuna farms. These farms take young tuna caught at sea and raise them in coastal waters.

They have also registered 13,000 fishermen in an effort to better monitor their catch.

While on the surface this may sound great conservation groups say the current situation is far from ideal. There are many loopholes and the regulations are not well enforced.

On a whole it does seem the path that the international fisheries are taking has slowly been inching it’s way to sustainable fishing. A pity though the Atlantic and Pacific bluefin tuna had to reach an alarming and grave situation for this to happen.

Do you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said in “The Plight of Bluefin Tuna in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans?” I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.


Japan’s Bluefin Tuna is Disappearing, But Few Chefs Fear Shortage
By Malcolm Foster

Plight of the Bluefin Tuna
by Michael J.A. Butler, National Geographic

Western Atlantic Bluefin Tuna
By Fishwatch

Consensus Reached on Pacific Bluefin Tuna Conservation
By Environment News Service

Conservationists appalled after Ottawa Raises Bluefin Tuna Quota
By Gloria Galloway,  THE GLOBE AND MAIL

How Much Will the Last Pacific Bluefin Tuna Cost?
By The PEW Charitable Trusts

The Plight of the Bluefin
By Ted Danson, BBC News

Industry Flouts Bluefin Catch Limits, Study Says
By David Jolly, The New York Times

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna
From Wikipedia

plight of bluefin tuna fishing model employing ship and net

A model showing what purse seine fishing is.

Image Public Domain

plight of bluefin tuna fisherman catching fish with net

An example of just how effective purse seine fishing is. Chilean jack mackerel (Trachurus murphyi) are caught by a Chilean purse seiner off Peru.

Image Public Domain

plight of bluefish tuna Catching bluefin Tuna

Three-pole one-line rig catching Bigeye tuna in the Galapagos Islands area. In pole and line fishing there is no reel. Bait is used to attract the tuna to the surface. The poles just have a short line with a non-barbed hook or lure for quick and easy release of the tuna into the boat.

Image Public Domain

The Plight of Bluefin Tuna Tuna Sushi

Tuna Sushi. Japan consumes 80% of the world’s bluefin tuna.

Image by Akira Kamikura (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
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