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Battle for the Western Atlantic Bluefin Tuna

In November, representatives of over 50 countries gathered in the coastal city of Agadir, Morocco, to determine the fate of one of the ocean’s most iconic species—the Atlantic bluefin tuna.

Every year, the governments that are members of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) struggle to jointly manage this highly migratory fish, and every year it’s a battle of science versus politics and short-term profit versus long-term sustainability.  Given the Atlantic bluefin fishery is worth about $1 billion annually, and individual fish can sell for tens of thousands of dollars, it’s no surprise that politics has played such a prominent role in past management decisions.  In 2008, ICCAT’s handling of bluefin tuna was deemed a “travesty in fisheries management” and an “international disgrace.”

Bluefin Tuna, Photo Credit: NOAA
Bluefin tuna

In 2009, ICCAT turned a corner. For the first time, it set annual bluefin fishing catch limits in both the eastern and western Atlantic in line with the advice of its scientific body. This September, in preparation for setting new limits, ICCAT scientists updated their estimate of the number of adult bluefin tuna remaining in the western Atlantic.  Bluefin found west of 45°W longitude are considered by ICCAT to be part of the western Atlantic population, whose only known spawning ground is in the Gulf of Mexico.  The stock assessment provided a glimmer of hope, detecting a 13% increase in the western population since 2009.

However, the population remains severely depleted at just 36% of what it was in 1970, a time when industrial fishing had already severely depleted the species.  While it is encouraging that following scientific advice works, ICCAT’s scientists recommended that managers keep the western catch limit at 1,750 metric tons. This would allow the population to continue to increase and give scientists time to address major uncertainties in the stock assessment that may be artificially inflating their estimates of western bluefin.

Testing Cooperation

When governments came together in Agadir in November, it was clear that this would be a test of whether ICCAT would continue to make sound, science-based management decisions or if it would go back to its old ways.  Governments including the U.S., Japan, Brazil, and others, joined by conservation groups and Pew Environment Group took a position to strictly adhere to the scientific advice and not increase the catch of western bluefin.

However, others at the meeting argued against the scientists’ advice, claiming that the bluefin have recovered and that it is time to reap the benefits.  Some commercial fishermen from the U.S., Canada, and Japan along with the Canadian government decided to make their own interpretation of the science.  In simple terms, their argument is that some yet-to-be-identified environmental factor has caused an irreversible shift in the western bluefin population and now, even if more adult bluefin are left in the ocean, the population will never be much greater than it is today. Following this logic through, if nothing is to be gained from keeping more fish in the ocean to reproduce, then nothing is lost if they take more out. Therefore, the Canadian government and industry representatives called for increasing the bluefin quota to 2,000 metric tons for the next three years —a very risky proposition given there is no evidence to support their theory and plenty of evidence to suggest that western bluefin cannot withstand increased fishing pressure.

On November 19, the final day of ICCAT’s annual meeting in Agadir, sound science emerged victorious. ICCAT decided to maintain eastern and western bluefin quotas in line with the scientific advice, marking a big victory for bluefin and for those scientists and countries that have fought hard to protect them.

The battle is far from over, however. While quotas were supposed to be set through 2015, advocates for increasing the quota were successful in requiring that quotas for the western bluefin be revisited next year.  Additional attacks on the science are likely. These attacks will likely focus on the productive capacity of bluefin (i.e., claiming that increased fishing is sustainable given there can be no more bluefin than there are today) and on the resilience of bluefin to fishing pressure (i.e., claiming that bluefin tuna are spawning at younger ages and in areas outside the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean).

More Attacks on Science?

These politically motivated attacks on the science are not unique to Atlantic bluefin tuna and are being waged in multiple fora in the quest for higher catch limits on depleted species.  Requests for annual stock assessments are distracting scientists from more pressing priorities such as improving their models to reduce uncertainties. Competing models presented by industry-funded scientists are being touted as equally likely to those models presented by independent scientific bodies.  It’s a clever strategy—muddy the scientific advice enough to justify any management decision.

ICCAT has scheduled a meeting this June in Japan that will bring together both scientists and fishery managers to review the current science and “support” the next western bluefin tuna stock assessment.  It’s critical that this meeting focus on the best available science rather than serving as a political forum to water down the current scientific advice.

ICCAT is to be commended for listening to its scientists this time around, not just in the western Atlantic but in the eastern Atlantic as well (where the quota was increased slightly to 13,500 metric tons, in line with the scientific advice).  If Atlantic bluefin and the communities that depend on them are to once again flourish, it is up to ICCAT member governments to defend the best available science and to continue on its course of choosing the scientific advice and long-term sustainability over short-term political and economic interests.

To see legal bluefin fishing in action, check out the second season of Wicked Tuna on National Geographic Channel, premiering on Sunday, January 13 at 9 PM ET.



  1. Miguel Jorge
    January 15, 2013, 3:30 pm

    In response to David Schalit…

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. We all want the same thing; lots of big bluefin tuna in the ocean for a healthy and productive fishery, but lets not split hairs or sugar coat the current situation.

    You state that the shift to follow the scientific advice occurred in 2008, not 2009, as I stated. However, note that the eastern quota was set at 22,000 metric tons in 2008 for the 2009 fishing year, which was well above the scientific advice of 15,000 mt.

    Experience with Tuna Regional Fisheries Management Organizations like ICCAT, has taught me that pressure to set quotas higher than science recommends is as strong as ever; so although I wish you were correct, I disagree with your statement that the battle to follow the science “has been won.” The fact that Canada pushed for a quota of 2,000 MT when the scientists recommended 1,750 is evidence enough that the battle is far from over.

    Yes, the government managers agreed this time to stick to the science but ICCAT agreed to approve the western quota for only one year and not in 2015 after new data is gathered and assessed (which is what they agreed for the eastern stock). I see this as yet another opportunity for Canada and those fishers interested in making more money ASAP to demand higher quotas in spite of science. Hopefully my suspicion will turn out to be unfounded.

    On recruitment (i.e., the relationship between the number of adults and the number of young that enter the population); yes, the ICCAT scientific body considers two scenarios as “equally plausible.” One scenario says that more reproductive adults won’t result in a lot more baby fish because of some unknown change in the environment. The conclusion is that you can catch more fish now because leaving them in the water won’t increase the population. Again, if your interest is in making more money now this scenario works just fine. However, there is currently no scientific evidence supporting a change in the environment that could explain a decrease in recruitment. The other scenario says: more adult bluefin reproducing = more baby fish restoring the population over time.

    If there is uncertainty about recruitment scientists agree that the best way to find out which scenario best reflects what’s really going on is to, leave as many Western Atlantic bluefin tuna as we can alive and see how the population responds. I’m not in favor of shutting down the fishery. In 2011 it was worth about $10 Million. But I believe it could rebound to $30 Million or much more if we play the long game. I’d rather try to rebuild the stock than listen to the foxes when they say that we should eat more of the chickens in the henhouse now.

    Miguel Angel Jorge

  2. Hugo Costa
    January 14, 2013, 7:05 am

    If you want to know more about Bluefin Tuna visit my project http://skaphandrus.com/en/marine_species/common_names/vernacular/Blue_fin_tuna


    Have a nice day!

  3. David Schalit
    New York NY
    January 13, 2013, 12:44 pm

    A few points.
    1. Your statement that ICCAT’s scientists “recommended that managers keep the western catch limit at 1,750 metric tons” is not precisely the case. They did say that maintaining catch at current levels (1,750 tons) “should allow the biomass to continue to increase.” In the next sentence, they said, “Larger catches in excess of 2,000 t will prevent the possibility of…elevating productivity..” etc. (ICCAT/SCRS/SCI-033/2012)
    2. “In 2009, ICCAT turned a corner. For the first time, it set annual bluefin fishing catch limits in both the eastern and western Atlantic in line with the advice with its scientific body.” Actually, this happened in 2008 and it is a known fact that the SCRS (scientific arm of ICCAT) have been making recommendations regarding quota for decades and you may be interested to know that NOAA and the US fishery has been following these recommendations assiduously all this time. The same is true of the Canadians. In the last two decades, since the large, industrial fishing vessels have dropped out of the US fishery, the only vessels left in the US fishery are the small ones, like the boats in “Wicked Tuna”, whose quota is set and maintained in accordance with ICCAT directives. So, this year is not the first time.
    3. It would be inaccurate to say that the results of the (recent) ICCAT meeting “would be a test of whether ICCAT would continue to make sound, science-based management decisions.” Nobody was concerned that the advices of the scientists would be ignored. Bluefin biomass recovery in the west Atlantic, as you capably point out, is showing significant progress and recovery in the east Atlantic is, as well. Prior to 2007, the problem was the “rogue states” in the Mediterranean fishery, who, up to that point, flagrantly ignored the advices of the scientists. The US fishery has always followed ICCAT directives. After 2007, a corner was turned, and the Med fishery began to follow scientific advice. This battle is over and has been won.
    4. “Some commercial fishermen from the US, Canada, and Japan along with the Canadian government decided to make their own interpretation of the science.” This would be incorrect. The US (NOAA) and the US fishermen (the American Bluefin Tuna Association) supported maintaining the quota at the prior year’s level. This is a matter of public record. The Canadians asked for a quota of 2,000 tons which they had every right to do, given the recommendation by the scientists. The Canadians, for your information, have been experiencing a sustained and dramatic increase in abundance of bluefin over the last ten years and, in the last three years, all their indices (and you can include in this the Japanese who fish in the western Atlantic, as well) have shown unprecedented abundance. The foregoing is validated by the SCRS.
    5. There have been no “politically motivated attacks on the science” at ICCAT in recent memory. Nobody is challenging the science. You refer in your article to the “high/low recruitment scenarios” without naming it. These scenarios have always been maintained by the SCRS as being “equally plausible.” For those who are not sufficiently conversant with pelagic science, these concepts can be a quantum leap in logic but this is what the science has been telling us. The fact that both scenarios are “equally plausible” (SCRS) is not a political position. It is a scientific fact that science cannot validate one over the other.

  4. Larry Amanuel
    Hudson Valley NY
    January 13, 2013, 11:33 am

    I have fished these waters for 20 years. Every year less fish further travel to find blue water. If we do not stop throwing our waste and halt factory fishing we will surely perish.
    The old adage don’t Sh*# where you eat really does hold true