Pacific bluefin tuna have been overfished for decades, with little or no management, and the species has declined to dangerously low levels. This year, the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean issued its most recent assessment of the Pacific bluefin population. The results were alarming: Scientists estimate that the number of Pacific bluefin has dropped by 96.4 percent since fishing started, leaving the population at just 3.6 percent of its original level. Additionally, scientists found that the population has plummeted by approximately 70 percent in the past 15 years alone.
The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission are responsible for managing Pacific bluefin fisheries. These bodies are made up of representatives from the member governments that fish for tuna in the Pacific Ocean. Fishery managers have implemented some long-overdue introductory management measures in the past few years, but they are:
- Not science-based.
- Not enforced.
- Not coordinated across the Pacific.
- Not adequate to rebuilding the bluefin population, because more than 90 percent of Pacific bluefin tuna are caught as juveniles before they have a chance to reproduce.
If member countries of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission fail to adopt science-based catch limits for Pacific bluefin tuna in 2013, all Pacific bluefin tuna fisheries should be suspended until strict measures are in place to reverse the steep population decline.
The Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission can demonstrate its commitment to protecting Pacific bluefin when its Scientific Advisory Committee meets April 29 – May 3 in La Jolla, CA. Member scientists should recommend that the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission finally set science-based catch limits for Pacific bluefin. Additionally, they should recommend strong monitoring and enforcement measures, including a catch documentation system and weekly reporting requirements, to prevent fishermen from quickly exceeding their quota, as they did in 2012.
This will be the first meeting since the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean released its dire stock assessment in January. And it will be a good test of whether the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission is serious about Pacific bluefin conservation. The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission’s Scientific Committee will have a similar opportunity in early August.