Save the Pacific Bluefin Tuna

By JANE LUBCHENCO and MARIA DAMANAKI

Credit Alec Doherty

 
Bluefin tuna are powerful ocean predators, growing up to twice the size of a lion and faster than a gazelle. There’s just one fatal flaw in their torpedo-like design: Their flesh is delicious to humans and worth a lot of money, creating a market demand that has led to a history of rampant overfishing.
 
In the case of Pacific bluefin, weak international regulations have failed to stem the toll. Now, where every 100 fish once thrived, fewer than three remain. Without rapid, coordinated action by the major fishing nations, Pacific bluefin tuna face commercial extinction, becoming too rare to catch profitably. A meeting of those countries and other concerned parties starting Dec. 5 in Fiji may prove critical to stemming the decline.
 
Humans are deeply connected to the global ocean, which covers more than two-thirds of the planet.
 
Disruptions to the marine environment, from collapsing food webs to ocean acidification, can pose threats to our own survival. The severe overfishing of this apex predator critical to the marine food web not only poses an immediate challenge to international fisheries managers but also raises some larger questions for all of us: How do we live within our means and feed a growing population? How can we live in harmony with the rest of life on earth? And how will our descendants inherit an environment that can sustain them?
 
The marine ecosystem is critical to life as we know it. It provides seafood to billions of people and economic sustenance to coastal communities worldwide, while absorbing about half of the human-produced carbon dioxide that is warming our planet to dangerous levels. Pacific bluefin tuna play a vital part in this web of life as they make epic journeys from their birthplace in the waters around Japan to the coasts of California and Mexico, where they spend several years feeding before returning.
 
These fish have a combined yearly market value of close to $1 billion, so commercial fishing interests pursue them relentlessly, and the species can’t reproduce fast enough to sustain itself.

The population has plummeted to just 2.6 percent of its historic size — dangerously low by any measure, and made worse by the threat of climate change.

A prospective buyer inspecting fresh tuna at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. Credit Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press   

    
Many international agreements and pledges affirm that each nation must play its part to conserve our shared ocean resources. But these binding international laws are too seldom followed or enforced. Rather than acting with caution in the face of uncertainty, some nations continue rampant overfishing of Pacific bluefin tuna, even on the spawning grounds in the Sea of Japan and near Okinawa, where protections are needed most. Management of the Pacific bluefin tuna fishery, which is divided between two organizations composed of countries with economic stakes in the tuna fishery, remains woefully inadequate because the groups lack meaningful plans for the tuna’s recovery. These organizations have ignored scientific warnings and common-sense precautions.
 
Still, there’s hope. In 2007, a related species, the eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna, was in serious decline.
 
Fishing quotas exceeded what the best science dictated, and poor enforcement of the quotas resulted in an actual catch that was double the allowed level under the already inflated limits.

The crisis led to widespread calls for action.
We must learn from the Atlantic example while there’s still time. The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, whose members include the United States, will meet this week.

With strong leadership, the commission could commit to a science-based, precautionary recovery plan for Pacific bluefin tuna. A consequential plan would include investments in basic research, quota reductions, robust monitoring, traceability of the catch to market and enforcement.
 
We must work together to protect our ocean ecosystem, which supports communities, economies and cultures around the Pacific Rim. Nations need to make good on their international commitments to put long-term ocean health ahead of short-term national interest.
 
The Pacific bluefin tuna depends on it. 
 

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