Countries increase protections for overfished Pacific bluefin tuna

Fall 2014

UPDATE, Nov. 19: Council cuts Pacific bluefin bag limit to support stock rebuilding

The Pacific Fishery Management Council this week reduced the daily recreational bag limit for Pacific bluefin tuna, following through on a recent international agreement (see below) to reduce the bluefin catch in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

On November 17, the Council voted to reduce the bag limit from 10 fish per day with a 30 fish limit for multi-day trips to a two fish per day or six fish for multi-day trips. This represents a roughly 30 percent reduction in the recreational bluefin catch, while still providing fishing opportunities for private and commercial sportfishing boats that pursue bluefin off the coasts of southern California and Mexico.

“We understand that any reduction has impacts, but this is a balanced approach that fulfills conservation objectives while at the same time allowing anglers fishing opportunity,” said Barry Thom, Deputy Regional Administrator of NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region and U.S Commissioner to the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. “Even a small catch reduction will help rebuild the stock.”

The reduced bag limit takes effect for the 2015 season but could be revised based on the results of the next bluefin stock assessment, scheduled for 2016.

Previous stock assessments have shown that Pacific bluefin tuna are severely depressed, with low recruitment and the spawning population's biomass near historically low levels. The United States and other nations that catch Pacific bluefin tuna in the eastern Pacific Ocean have agreed to reduce the commercial and recreational catch, while the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission is expected to take similar action this December to reduce catch limits in the western Pacific Ocean. The combined cuts are expected to contribute to rebuilding the stock throughout its entire range.

Background on IATTC Pacific bluefin agreement

During a meeting of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) this week, the United States, Mexico and Japan developed a joint proposal to reduce the catch limit of Pacific bluefin tuna in the eastern Pacific Ocean (EPO) in 2015 and 2016. IATTC member nations adopted the proposal by consensus, taking a critical step in rebuilding the population of this overfished species.

“With this agreement we will see reduced impacts on juvenile bluefin, which will contribute to rebuilding goals,” said Barry Thom, U.S. Commissioner to the IATTC. “We can only achieve rebuilding of this important species by working together across the entire range of the species and by reducing both juvenile and adult catch.”

Bluefin tuna. NOAA photo. 

Pacific bluefin spawn in the western Pacific Ocean near Japan, and a portion of the population typically migrates to the EPO off of Mexico and the United States for a few years before returning west to spawn. The species is considered overfished and has declined to historic lows, with an estimated 3 to 5 percent of its historic spawning biomass remaining.

Approximately 80 percent of the fishing impacts on Pacific bluefin occur in the western and central Pacific Ocean (WCPO), with the remaining 20 percent occurring in the EPO. Japan’s fisheries account for the majority of the catch in the WCPO, while Mexico’s fisheries account for the majority of the catch in the EPO. Given the greater fishing impacts in the WCPO, reductions in the WCPO catch across all age classes will be critical in allowing the species to rebuild.

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which manages fisheries in the WCPO, is expected to adopt additional Pacific bluefin catch reductions at its annual meeting this December.

The staff of the IATTC recommended a 20 to 45 percent reduction in Pacific bluefin catches in the EPO.  This week’s agreement by IATTC member countries limits the Pacific bluefin catch in the EPO to no more than 6,600 metric tons in 2015 and 2016 combined, for an effective annual catch of 3,300 metric tons. That represents a roughly 43 percent reduction below the average catch from 2010 to 2012, which matches the IATTC staff scientific recommendations.

“These reductions are not only in line with the conservation advice, but they’re also balanced reductions reflecting where the majority of the fishing impacts occur,” Thom said. “All nations need to do their part in rebuilding this stock and this agreement is a big part of making that happen.”

The agreement also calls for member countries to reduce the catch of bluefin tuna by sportfishing vessels by a proportion similar to the reductions in the commercial catch.

The United States is also considering steps to sharply reduce recreational bluefin catches from a limit of 10 fish per person per day, with possession allowance of 30 fish per multi-day trip, to a limit of two fish per person per day, with a possession limit of six fish total. The U.S. recreational catch limits are expected to be adopted by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council in November and to be effective for the 2015 fishing season.