By Alessandro Buzzi, Bluefin tuna Regional Manager, WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative.
As a conservation organization working to protect our oceans and its marine life, It would be a privilege for us to be able to say the bluefin tuna, one of the most iconic marine species, has recovered from the brink of collapse. But sadly, the reality is very different.
While the measures to reduce the fishing effort have resulted in a gradual growth in the population over the past 10 years, the increased level of catches (the highest ever set to 36.000 t in 2020) and persistently high level of illegal fishing continue to prohibit the full recovery of bluefin tuna.
We’ve been eating tuna for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks and Romans loved it. In Sicily and Malta, tuna fishing goes back to prehistoric times, and up to the 1800s, it strongly contributed to the economic growth of the island.
But the game-changer has been the huge rise in the popularity of sushi and sashimi, which has been growing exponentially since the 1960s. Today, most of the bluefin tuna caught in the Mediterranean Sea and put in cages for 4 to 6 months where it is fed with large amounts of wild-caught fish to meet the requirements of fat content that influence the price of tuna on the high priced Japanese market.
At the end of the 1990s, bluefin began to be hunted without limits around the world, with spotter planes and speedboats often used to find the shoals. As more fishers entered the market and more bluefin were caught, prices began to fall — so then fishing efforts redoubled. It was an ecological disaster. The tuna population of the western Atlantic was the first to really suffer, and it happened fast. By 1960, around 1,000 tonnes of tuna were landed each year and by 1964, this had rocketed to 18,000 tonnes. By the end of the decade, landings had fallen 80% from their peak. It had taken just 10 years to destroy the regional stocks.
In the Mediterranean, it took longer: the population was larger and the market — at first — was smaller. Industrial-scale fishing for bluefin only really began in the early 1990s, but once it took off, it was equally devastating for the stocks.