Toggle Nav

Immediate Ban Needed to Save Bluefin Tuna

WWF, Other Groups Call for Moratorium to Avoid Fisheries Collapse

Washington DC– The bluefin tuna population is close to collapse because of over-fishing, lack of comprehensive management, illegal fishing in the East Atlantic and Mediterranean Seas, and insufficient measures taken by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), according to WWF and eight other conservation organizations. The organizations voiced their concerns in a letter sent to Dr. William T. Hogarth, Director of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service and the chairman of ICCAT today.

The groups stress the critical need for a multiyear moratorium on the commercial fishing of Atlantic bluefin tuna until a management system and viable recovery plan are in place for both the western and eastern Atlantic. The letter is critical of ICCAT’s long history of approving quotas far above the recommendations of its scientific committee and its inability to enforce quota and other provisions of its recovery plan, driving Atlantic bluefin tuna ever closer to collapse. 

“ICCAT needs to act before it is too late and the only sure way to avoid collapse is an immediate moratorium,” says Tom Grasso, director of WWF’s Fisheries Program.

Despite recommendations from ICCAT’s Standing Committee on Research and Statistics in 2006, ICCAT set the eastern bluefin fishing quota to twice the scientifically recommended level and failed to close the bluefin fishery during peak spawning season. Current catches were three times more than the sustainable level of 15,000 tons, increasing the risk of population collapse.

In the western Atlantic, US fishermen are landing just a fraction of the quota for the fourth straight season according to ICCAT. The average size of the catch continues to drop drop and catch of juvenile, school-sized fish has decreased. Despite quota reductions for Atlantic bluefin in the western Atlantic, the population continues to decline. Directed fishing has been banned in the Gulf of Mexico for over 25 years, but spawning bluefin are being killed as bycatch in other fisheries.

Official catches by the European Union (EU) fleets in the Mediterranean exceeded their quota by nearly 25 percent, with France reporting bluefin catches almost double the national quota. Due to fishing during the closed season and the use of illegal spotting planes, massive over-quota catches have been frequent occurrences in the fishery during 2007 says WWF.  

Most of the bluefin tuna is intended for the Japanese market where it is used for sushi and sashimi. Japanese traders buy the tuna cheap and sell it at a high price. The Mitsubishi Corporation, for example, accounts for some 40 percent of Mediterranean bluefin imports to Japan. Company officials were alerted by WWF to the crisis but continue to trade.

“Now is the time to take decisive action to save this majestic species – efforts to date have failed,” adds Grasso. “ICCAT must not allow the fishery to reopen before the stock starts to recover and sustainable management is established.”

The letter to Dr Hogarth was jointly signed by WWF, Oceana, Pew Charitable Trusts, International Game Fish Association, Ocean Conservancy, National Environmental Trust, Environmental Defense, Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace. ICCAT, the body mandated to sustainably manage the fishery, will meet this week in Antalya, Turkey.

                    * * *

Notes to editor:

  •    Background on bluefin tuna management:

-        Atlantic bluefin tuna are managed by ICCAT as two stocks, a western Atlantic and an eastern Atlantic, separated at the 45ºW meridian.

-        Electronic tagging and genetic studies have confirmed that there are two distinct populations that mix on feeding grounds in the North Atlantic but separate to return to their natal spawning grounds when it is time to breed.  Western bluefin spawn in the Gulf of Mexico, and eastern bluefin spawn in the Mediterranean Sea.

-        The number of mature, giant bluefin tuna in the western population has declined by over 90 percent since 1975, and scientists estimate that there may be fewer than 10,000 adults remaining.  Similarly, the adult population in the eastern Atlantic has been reduced by at least half since the 1970s.

-        Bluefin tuna faces the risk of commercial collapse, which means it would be beyond commercial recovery.  The collapse of a fish species beyond biological recovery depends on the reproducing population and this has not yet been determined for bluefin tuna.

•       The latest evidence of a fishery in crisis includes:

-    Official catches by EU fleets exceeding its quota by more than 25 percent in 2007, bringing reported EU catch to some 20,000 tons, with French reported catches almost doubling the national quota (France fished 10,165 tons by end-August this year compared to its 5,593-ton quota). In addition, it is impossible to determine how many illegal and unreported catches across the Mediterranean fishery remain unknown.

-        Spain had an allocated bluefin tuna quota in 2006 of 6,266 tons, while provisional 2006 Spanish reported catches amount to 4,722 tons of bluefin tuna. Both figures are in contrast with available trade data showing that Spain exported 8,964 tons of bluefin tuna in 2006.

-        ICCAT reports that U.S. fishermen have landed only 10 percent of the 2007 quota to date.

-        U.S. bluefin tuna fishermen grossed just $3.4 million in 2006, compared to $19.2 million in 2000.

•          The following Japanese trading companies have been informed of the Mediterranean bluefin tuna crisis by WWF: Mitsubishi Corporation (accounting for 40 percent imports of Mediterranean bluefin tuna to Japan), Sojitz Corporation (15 percent), Mitsui & Co., Ltd. (5 percent), Maruha Corporation, Marubeni Corporation, Itochu Corporation and Kanetomo Co. Ltd.

B-roll and high-resolution photographs of tuna are available to accompany press stories based on this release and mentioning World Wildlife Fund.

About World Wildlife Fund:

For more than 45 years, WWF has been protecting the future of nature. The largest multinational conservation organization in the world, WWF works in 100 countries and is supported by 1.2 million members in the United Statesand close to 5 million globally. WWF's unique way of working combines global reach with a foundation in science, involves action at every level, from local to global, and ensures the delivery of innovative solutions that meet the needs of both people and nature. Go to worldwildlife.org to learn more.