Atlantic Bluefin tuna: Efforts to fight overfishing have paid off, but major challenges remain
More than two decades after the design of a recovery plan to save the Atlantic bluefin tuna from massive overfishing in the East Atlantic and Mediterranean, the species is showing promising signs of recovery. But with an ever-increasing demand fueled by the sushi market, the proof of extensive illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and unsustainable farming practices, the battle is far from won. What are the next steps to protect this iconic species? And what are the current recommendations around bluefin tuna consumption?
Moving through the sea as a torpedo, the Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) has been referred to as the « Ferrari of the seas », capable of reaching up to 70km/h. This majestic species which can grow to more than 3 m in length and weigh up to 725 kg plays a key regulative role in the ocean as a top predator. There are two populations of Atlantic bluefin tuna - the western population which breeds in the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern population which spawns in the Mediterranean Sea.
Driven by a skyrocketing demand for sushi and sashimi mainly by the Japanese market, the East Atlantic and Mediterranean stock of bluefin was pushed to the verge of collapse in just about a decade. In 1998, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) adopted the first measures in an attempt to tackle the situation, setting fixed fishing quotas and a minimum landing size. Despite this the stock continued to drop in the early 2000s, mainly due to weak enforcement and higher catches than the levels recommended by scientists. The decline has been estimated to 80% between 1970 to 2010.
HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco recognized early on just how serious the situation was - and led by example. In 2008, through an unprecedented partnership among restaurants and retailers, a moratorium on bluefin tuna consumption was established in the Principality. In 2009, Monaco proposed to include the species for protection through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which would have banned its international trade. While the proposal was not adopted due to strong lobbying from certain countries, it raised global awareness about the issue and contributed to the introduction of a science-based recovery plan, a drastic reduction of quotas and stringent controls to ensure the enforcement, the same year.
Starting from 2008, the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation supported WWF’s efforts to study and protect bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean, through scientific surveys, advocacy and awareness-raising. In one recent project, through an innovative partnership with recreational fishermen, WWF tagged more than 100 Atlantic bluefin tuna as part of ICCAT’s scientific tagging program. Tagging tuna allow researchers to better understand migration patterns and behaviour, and provides crucial data to estimate the size and state of the stock – data which ultimately informs ICCAT’s establishment of quotas and other management measures. WWF has also played an important advocacy role as an observer to ICCAT, stressing the importance of science-based policy decisions and alerting of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU) in the Mediterranean.
And it finally looks like the efforts to protect the species have paid off. Stocks seem to be on the rise, the overall situation has improved considerably with biomass up by 400% from 2009 (WWF), which is higher than historical levels. The stock is no longer considered overfished by ICCAT. In September 2021, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) moved Atlantic bluefin tuna from « Endangered » to «Least Concern » on its Red List of Threatened Species.
WWF qualifies the efforts to protect bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean as one of the biggest conservation victories of all times, but remains cautious about the future. In addition to illegal fishing, another main problem is the unsustainable practice of tuna fattening, common in the Mediterranean to increase the fat content in wild-caught tuna in order to meet the market demand from essentially Japan. As much as 15 to 20 kg of sardines is needed to produce 1 kg of tuna.
Alessandro Buzzi, Bluefin tuna Regional Manager with the WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative explains: « The situation has improved substantially, but this is not the time for complacency. The potentially high levels of IUU fishing in the Mediterranean, as well as the unsustainable practice of fattening bluefin tuna in farms still pose serious concerns for the sustainability of bluefin tuna consumption».
So how should consumers think around bluefin tuna? WWF recommends consumers to be informed about the origin of the fish, using existing tools and requirements to ensure transparency. Consumers are encouraged to request information about the origin and traceability of the fish - information that restaurants and fishmongers should always be able to provide as part of ICCAT’s “Electronic Bluefin Tuna Catch Documentation”, which is issued for all legal catches of Atlantic bluefin tuna.
WWF also recommends avoiding the consumption of fattened bluefin tuna, considering the negative impacts of this practice on marine ecosystems. WWF is actively working with retailers and fisheries to promote alternatives to bluefin tuna fattening and to develop local markets for wild-caught bluefin in the Mediterranean.
What about eco-labelled fisheries? The first two Atlantic bluefin tuna fisheries were certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) last year – a decision objected by WWF « WWF is currently not in a position to recommend MSC certified Atlantic bluefin tuna. We consider the certification of any Atlantic bluefin tuna fishery premature. Certification was approved, but with a list of conditions and an action plan that the fisheries will have to implement and review in the next five years, showing that, to date, the fishery is not ready for a sustainability label. To WWF, certification at this point in time is a dangerous incentive to the market that could compromise the long-term recovery of the species” says Alessandro Buzzi.
Mr Goodfish is an awareness-raising program providing recommendations for sustainable seafood consumption, initiated by the aquarium Nausicaa and coordinated in the Mediterranean by the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation. Mr Goodfish has included Atlantic bluefin tuna on its seasonal lists of recommended species since 2019, reflecting the improved state of the stocks, but recommends its consumption only if the fish is caught outside of its reproduction period and at a minimum size of 120 cm to ensure sexual maturity, increasing chances that the fish is able to reproduce at least once before being caught.
What are the next steps to ensure the protection of Atlantic bluefin tuna? WWF is participating in the 27th Regular meeting of the ICCAT Commission this week to advocate for the adoption of important amendments to the current recovery plan, including reinforced controls on the trade of live fish and farming activities. WWF also fully supports the road map towards the adoption of so called “harvest control rules”, which will be on the table for next year’s ICCAT meeting. This important management tool will ensure that the establishment of future quota, starting from 2023, are based on scientific models and management procedures rather than a negotiation process between ICCAT Contracting Parties. To WWF, this would be a critical step forward for a sustainable management of Atlantic bluefin tuna.