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Commodities

Pacific bluefin tuna treading in dangerous waters

Sellers at Tokyo's Tsukiji market prepare bluefin tuna samples for potential buyers. (Photo courtesy of the Pew Charitable Trusts)

NEW YORK -- Progress toward conserving endangered Pacific bluefin tuna is not enough to keep up with the pace of fishing, and the industry faces the risk of collapse, said Amanda Nickson, director for Global Tuna Conservation at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"Pacific bluefin is still being fished at least 20% above the level it would be sustainable, and its population is still severely depleted," she said. "In the future, that population could ultimately collapse and be incapable of supporting a commercial fishery."

Nickson spoke on the sidelines of a United Nations conference held from May 23-27 for the third review of the U.N. Fish Stocks Agreement, which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1995. Signed onto by 83 countries so far, the accord sets out a number of commitments to improving the status of straddling and highly migratory fish stocks, including tuna species like Pacific bluefin. 

Despite progress in some areas, notably in efforts to curtail illegal fishing, implementation of other major provisions of the agreement is still falling short. Members at the conference noted that the overall status of straddling and highly migratory fish stocks has not improved since previous reviews in 2006 and 2010.

A report from the U.N. secretary-general to the conference indicated that 84% of straddling fish stocks and 86% of tuna and tuna-like species stocks were either overexploited or fully exploited. Pacific bluefin, fished mainly in the seas around Japan, is of particular concern -- its population having decreased by 97% compared with unfished levels.

According to a new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the global tuna industry was valued at an estimated $42.2 billion in 2014, with Indonesia, Japan, and Taiwan constituting the top three tuna-fishing nations. In addition to being the second-largest tuna-fishing country, Japan is also the largest consumer of sashimi, accounting for 75-80% of the global sashimi market. The regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) found that all three of the bluefin tuna species are currently overfished. These three types of tuna are also the highest-priced, generating over $2 billion in end value annually.

For Japan, the economic significance of Pacific bluefin means much is at stake if the industry is unable to sustain itself. Japan's Fisheries Agency, working with RFMOs, has set a goal of bringing the stock back to the historical average of 43,000 tons by 2024, up from 26,000 tons in 2012. The Fisheries Agency has also announced limits to cap catches of fish under 30kg, including bluefin, at 4,007 tons annually. A number of RFMOs are scheduled to meet later this year to discuss further measures. 

While Japan has taken some preliminary steps, Nickson expressed concern that these measures are still not enough.

"At the moment, the only recovery target would return the population to 6.9% of its unfished levels. We'd like to see Japan really take a strong role in defining a management plan that would return that stock to 25% of unfished levels, at least," Nickson said. She also noted that Pacific bluefin is a resilient species, and that with proper limitations, substantial improvement could be seen in as few as five years.

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