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.
Here, it wasn’t just the giants that the fishers were hunting. The introduction of bluefin tuna ranches in the Mediterranean opened a whole new market for younger tuna: juvenile tuna was captured alive at sea for transport to these ranches before having the chance to reproduce, meaning the breeding stock fell rapidly. Unreported catches were estimated to be more than double the recorded landings.
In 1996, the IUCN listed the Atlantic bluefin tuna as ‘endangered’: the population was down by 85%.
Astonishingly, we had to wait until 1998 to have catch quotas in place. And even then, for several years catch limits were set many times higher than the scientists advised to ensure that the fishing sector made a profit.
In addition, monitoring and enforcement in the Mediterranean has traditionally been inadequate, allowing for high levels of Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing. Even when quotas started to be gradually reduced, the pressure on the tuna remained high because of the increasing amount of IUU fishing. Illegal fishing and trade remain one of the biggest unresolved issues, as confirmed by the latest investigation by Interpol.
In 2006, experts were predicting the collapse of the stock by 2012. It was time for a radical change to avoid the full extinction of Bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean.
In 2009, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) finally adopted a rigorous recovery plan, setting rules on total allowable catches, the length of the season, minimum size, bycatch management, and recreational fisheries. It also introduced a new reporting and control system.
A decade later, the situation for bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean is potentially good — the stock is recovering, but we’re at a crucial point in the process.
This is why, in 2017, WWF criticized ICCAT’s decision to set the highest quota increase of bluefin catches — up to 36,000 tonnes — by 2020. Considering the scale of unreported catches, such an increase risks undermining the results gained so far.
This is also why WWF is formally objecting to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)’s first-ever certification of an Atlantic bluefin tuna fishery, warning that this would provide a dangerous incentive to the market and compromise the long-term recovery of the stock.
MSC states on its website: ‘Consumers can be assured that the fish they’re buying is certified, sustainable, traceable and wild.” But in this instance, as WWF has repeatedly stated, the blue MSC logo on bluefin tuna would have consumers believe a distorted reality. The requirements for certification cannot be met by the tuna fishery due to the incomplete data available for the tuna stock assessment as well as the quantity of bluefin tuna that is illegally fished and traded.
It has been a long, complex, but successful recovery for the bluefin tuna but we need to continue to take a precautionary approach when assessing this progress to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. At WWF, we believe the short-term benefits of increasing any fishing effort or promoting certification are not worth putting bluefin tuna again at risk.
We’re very nearly there. There’s been an enormous amount of excellent work done to save the bluefin tuna, and if we can keep up our efforts for a little while longer, then — and only then — will there be a chance that we can leave a healthy population of this wonderful fish as a legacy for our children and grandchildren.
For more information on WWF’s work on bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean: http://www.wwfmmi.org/what_we_do/fisheries/tuna/