WASHINGTON, D.C. — Federal officials will not place Pacific bluefin tuna on the endangered species list, following National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declaring the Northern Pacific Ocean fishery is not on the verge of disappearing.
NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, after a 12-month review, determined Pacific bluefin tuna is not a critical habitat and the fish species’ population is large enough to avoid requiring stringent federal protection.
Members of the research team, which included researchers and scientists with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, stated there were 1.6 million individual bluefin tuna swimming in the Northern Pacific Ocean as of 2014, with 140,000 fish being of reproductive size. These numbers, NOAA’s research team stated, were sufficient enough to determine Pacific bluefin tuna as not warranting restrictive protections under the Endangered Species Act.
Matthew Craig, chair of the Pacific Bluefin Tuna Status Review Team and part of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, said news reports in recent years stating the fish species’ current population was at less than 3 percent might not be the most accurate calculation.
The estimated 97 percent decline in biomass, Craig stated, might be based upon comparing the current active population of bluefin tuna to a theoretical number of what the biomass would have been had there been no fishing.
Craig added several countries that regularly catch Pacific bluefin tuna have taken steps in recent years to help rebuild the fishery.
Chris Yates, the assistant regional administrator for protect resources with NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region, stated the species’ population is not ideal but there is still a significant presence of individual and reproductive Pacific bluefin tuna to warrant keeping it off the endangered species list.
The species’ population has been at low levels before in the best, Yates acknowledged, but the overall numbers have apparently rebounded, giving federal officials reason to believe the fishery doesn’t meet statutory definition of being endangered.
Pacific bluefin tuna might have avoided the endangered species list but the fishery still faces threats.
“Fishing was the highest risk to the species,” Craig said, adding the research team studied 25 total threats to the Pacific bluefin tuna biomass.
Overfishing posed a moderate threat at best, Craig added, but the fishery still is not endangered or threatened as a whole.
Yates noted there is a difference between a fish being overfished and what qualifies as an endangered species by definition.
Take prohibitions would likely have been enacted had the bluefin tuna fishery found itself on the endangered species list, though researches did not want to speculate on what actually would have happened had the restrictive determination been put into effect.
A team of experts reviewed the fishery and studied potential threats. The review, which was independently peer reviewed, included best science practices.
The 12-month study evaluated the extinction threat in light of biology and ecology of the species. The most recent international stock assessment was also factored into the review.
NOAA’s review team studied the endangerment threats of Pacific bluefin tuna after the Center for Biological Diversity and 13 other organizations petitioned the federal agency to determine the species as endangered in June 2016.
Among the threats analyzed by NOAA’s researchers were disease, inadequate regulatory mechanisms and overutilization of the species for commercial, educational, research or academic purposes.
Pacific bluefin tuna generally spawn in two areas: at the Sea of Japan and near Taiwan.
NOAA/Danilo Cedrone photo