On Tuna Overfishing

Global tuna populations are at a historical low. According to the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like Species of the North Pacific Ocean, the Pacific bluefin tuna population is just at 4% of their original, unfished population levels. Tuna is globally endangered, suffering abysmally low levels in both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans where they used to swim in abundance. Some of the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zones near developed countries with stringent regulations still have recovering populations of tuna, but these populations have already decreased drastically before the introduction of new regulations to stymie the previously unchecked overfishing.

Tuna are currently being fished at levels significantly above the maximum sustainable yield. Overfishing is most severe in countries like Japan where fish are culturally significant. This is because there is a significant number of people working in the fishing industry, and politicians risk alienating industry workers if they propose total bans on tuna fishing. In some other areas, however, there is hope for sustainable tuna harvesting. For example, in the United States and some European countries, stringent regulations on bluefin tuna fishing have led to slowly recovering stocks. These countries are willing to adopt such policies because their economies are not dependent on fishing.

International action has been proposed and taken to preserve the tuna. Many regional international organizations, such as the WCPFC, IATTC, ICCAT, and IOTC, have been set up to manage the fishing of tuna. However, these organizations have often been criticized by environmentalists who feel that they are not performing a competent job – for example, some refer to the ICCAT, International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, as the “International Conspiracy to Catch All Tunas.” This is because these organizations are unable to do anything beyond what is member nations desire. It does not have the power to enforce rules or impose sanctions upon any countries. Governments have ignored scientists’ recommendations, reducing quota cuts from 50% to 20%. Moreover, governments face political pressure from business owners and fishermen who feel that these fishing regulations destroy their livelihoods. Even the United Nations has failed to take action. In 2010, the UN rejected a proposal by the United States for an international ban on the Atlantic bluefin tuna trade. Although the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species voted in favor of this ban, Japan claimed that ICCAT was the only regulatory body with the jurisdiction. Fortunately, some individual nations are also taking action on their own. For example, the United States embargoed unsustainably obtained tuna imported from Mexico as many dolphins were being killed. However, these efforts have been very limited and have often been overridden following economic pressures.

There are other measures that can be taken to protect the tuna population. One of the most important things that can be done is for environmental organizations to raise awareness of the near-extinction of tuna. If demand can be driven down, then surely production will also be decreased. Indeed, promoting awareness is not as easy as it seems, especially as many governments are unwilling to do so. However, large environmental groups have the resources to run some campaigns, and some have already done so. As awareness increases, there will no longer be such a large demand for endangered tuna species.


“Pacific Bluefin Stock Assessment.” ISC. International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like Species in the North Pacific Ocean, 21 Dec. 2012. Web. 21 Feb. 2017. http://isc.fra.go.jp/pdf/Stock_assessment/Final_Assessment_Summary_PBF.pdf

Black, Richard. “Last rites for a marine marvel?” BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation, 17 Oct., 2007. Web. 21 Feb. 2017. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7040011.stm

Jolly, David, and John M. Broder. “U.N. Rejects Export Ban on Atlantic Bluefin Tuna.” NY Times. New York Times, 18 Mar. 2010. Web. 21 Feb. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/19/science/earth/19species.html?src=sch&pagewanted=all

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