The Pacific Bluefin: Down But Not Out – Yet

With ESA Listing Denied, Attention Shifts Back to International Management Bodies

by Ken Hinman

The U.S. government earlier this month denied a petition to list Pacific bluefin tuna under the Endangered Species Act, citing recent international actions that may have stabilized the population and could, if continued, put bluefin on “a positive trajectory.”

NOAA Fisheries, which did the required ESA Status Review, confirms the population of giant tunas in the Pacific is in deep trouble, fished down to less than 3% of an un-fished level.  Listings under the ESA are based strictly on biological criteria; social and economic factors, i.e., the impact on U.S. fishermen, who are an insignificant part of the ocean-wide catch (<5%), come into play only when regulations are promulgated.  But it’s a tough list for a highly migratory pelagic species to make.

Only 3 percent of listed species are ocean fish, most of these salmon and sturgeon, species nearly wiped out through destruction of their spawning habitat.  Frankly, there are doubts, even among marine biologists, as to whether or not we can completely extirpate a species of fish that inhabits a body of water as large as the Pacific Ocean.  Similar proposals to list the similarly depleted Atlantic bluefin tuna (1975 and 1993) as well as white marlin (2002) were denied.

But that’s an academic question.  The real concern when the ESA comes into the discussion is not just whether to list or not to list, but the fact that we’re having this conversation at all! 

In 1992, in an article on the ESA entitled Crowding at the Bottom, I wrote that

(w)hat’s common to all the species listed or proposed for listing is that they have come to this end in spite of a variety of laws in place to conserve them.  Endangered species designation is the court of last resort.  It represents an utter failure of conservation practices meant to keep fish and wildlife in a healthy state.  It’s controversial because listing usually leads to severe actions that would not be necessary had other laws been applied properly in the first place. 

The Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (eastern Pacific) and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission are responsible for managing the fisheries for bluefin.  The most recent international stock assessment puts bluefin at only about 10% of its peak population size since 1952, the period of the most intensive fishing for the highly-valuable tuna.  It’s the thought that it’s likely to become commercially extinct long before the remaining survivors are all caught (although how would we even know?) that has finally prompted action from IATTC and WCPFC to reduce harvest.

More protective measures are needed, especially a long-term rebuilding plan.  The Northern Committee of the WCPFC meets August 28 – September 1 in the Republic of Korea, and Wild Oceans Pacific Program Director Theresa Labriola will be there as part of the U.S. Delegation.

“In August we will be working to get the WCPFC Northern Committee to adopt an ocean-wide rebuilding target for Pacific bluefin tuna that increases spawning stock biomass to at least 20% by 2030,” says Theresa.  “Short term success requires reducing the removal rate of juvenile tuna and restricting harvest of tuna on the spawning grounds in the western Pacific.  Long-term sustainability will hinge on the development of scientifically-tested reference points and implementation of strict harvest control rules for all nations involved in the fishery.”

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