A Tuna Turnaround? Bluefin Populations Are On The Rise

Quota limits show promising signs of a bluefin resurgence. But it's too early to be confident.
Thanks to stricter bluefin catch quotas, the fish is on the rebound. (Emmanuel Dunnand/Getty Images)
Nov 14, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

From 1974 to 2010, the spawning populations of Atlantic Bluefin tuna plummeted nearly 75 percent. With a $4 billion black market kept afloat by fraud and lax governmental oversight by nations across the globe, the future of the fish looked grim. Environmentalists and oceanic experts worried bluefin were on the brink of extinction, sending a ripple effect into the ocean that could upset delicate ecosystems. Fishermen worried about their livelihoods. Still, a 2010 proposal to ban international trade of bluefin altogether was defeated.

At the time, Japan (the world's largest exporter of bluefin) said the job of saving the species was one for quota-setting international fisheries bodies. Other nations from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean agreed. It turns out, they might have been right: International bodies stepped in, and two years later the Atlantic Bluefin tuna appears to be making a comeback, reports the Associated Press.

Just ahead of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas—which starts Monday in Morocco—scientists have released a stock assessment that shows Bluefin tuna populations are rebounding.

Stricter quotas on legal catch limits helped pull the species back from extinction, but tuna are not in the clear yet. The assessment stated "the magnitude and speed of the increase vary considerably."

Amanda Nickson, director of the Global Tuna Conservation Campaign at the Pew Environment Group, is hopeful but remains diligent to conservation efforts.

"The stock assessment results seem to indicate there may be the possibilitiy of a glimmer of recovery but it's so uncertain at the moment," she told the Associated Press. "This is the first year where they will have to stick to science even if [it] does look like there is a bit of good news."

She and other environmentalists are calling on the 48 nations in the ICCAT, an inter-governmental fisher organization whose job is it to conserve tunas and tuna-like species, to adhere to the strict limits for three more years. In 2010, the ICCAT slashed the annual global quota by 40 percent, shrinking the amount to 14,900 tons; a year later, they revised the number to 14,200 tons, and also increased enforcement to help thwart the black market trade that is gutting fish populations. Japan has also shifted to grow more farm-bred tuna, which has helped to feed the consumer demand for bluefin.

Many nations have indicated they can and will work with maintaining the quotas, but the response has not been unanimous. Libya, for example, argues that its civil war last year interrupted fishing season, and therefore the country is due an additional allotment. Spain and Italy are also pushing for a slight quota increase.

Next week's International Commission will reveal more about the future of the bluefin tuna, but one thing is not debatable: Enforcement is key. No matter how many quotas, rules, and regulations define the course of the bluefin, if the black market prevails, conservations efforts come to nothing.

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