STATEWIDE — Federal and international policymakers are weighing in on a proposal to declare Pacific bluefin tuna an endangered species. A coalition of 14 environmental groups and advocates submitted a petition in June 2016 to protect the fish species from extinction. However fishing interests have since pushed back, stating recreational anglers in the United States were never responsible for dwindling numbers of Pacific bluefin tuna.
Recent reports indicate catches of Pacific bluefin tuna have been dwindling since the 1950s. Data published by the Southwest Fisheries Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) revealed the spawning stock of Pacific bluefin tuna was only at 2.6 percent of its un-fished biomass in 2014 (compared to 2 percent in 2012).
The Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) and American Sportfishing Association (ASA), however, challenged efforts to declare Pacific bluefin tuna as an endangered species.
CCA’s California chapter recently issued an official statement in support of the ASA and national organization position, claiming U.S. anglers harvest about 1.5 percent of Pacific bluefin tuna.
“Almost all Pacific bluefin tuna are, in fact, caught by foreign commercial fishermen overseas,” the official CCA California statement read, adding the formal petition submitted to NOAA would unfairly harm recreational anglers in the United States.
A study of Pacific bluefin tuna catches worldwide lends some support to CCA’s and ASA’s position.
The International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like Species in the North Pacific Ocean published a stock assessment of Pacific bluefin tuna in 2014 and acknowledged more than 75 percent of the species were caught in the western half of the Pacific Ocean during peak harvesting activity in 1935.
More than 36,000 tons of Pacific bluefin tuna – out of 47,635 tons caught – in 1935 were reeled in east of Japan and west of Hawaii.
“The US recreational fleet also catches relatively small amounts of [Pacific bluefin tuna], typically while fishing in Mexican waters,” the International Scientific Committee stated in its July 2016 report on Pacific bluefin tuna.
However the International Scientific Committee maintains the species has been overfished since 1952 and something must be done to bring the biomass back to a sustainable level, which is between 38,000 and 43,000 tons caught annually.
The species hit an all-time low in annual catch rates in 1990, when only 8,653 tons of Pacific bluefin tuna were reeled in internationally. Most of the Pacific bluefin tuna (about 6,000 tons), was reportedly caught in Japan, according to the International Scientific Committee.
Japan caught more than half of the available Pacific bluefin tuna since authorities began collecting data in the 1950s. Mexico reportedly had the second-highest catch rate of Pacific bluefin tuna.
Data from the International Scientific Committee (and cited by NOAA) pointed out recreational anglers from the United States caught 984 tons of Pacific bluefin tuna in 2013, compared to 11,140 tons of the species caught by commercial fishermen worldwide.
Scientists with NOAA and the International Scientific Committee stated the United States might not be the main culprit in the dwindling numbers of Pacific bluefin tuna, but action must still be taken nonetheless to replenish the species.
Early action now, according to NOAA, can help avoid even more drastic measures later.
“NOAA and ISC scientists can not precisely estimate how few spawning Pacific bluefin tuna would be too few to sustain the population, but agree there is a high risk that the population has reached that point,” NOAA staff stated in 2015 about replenishing the species.
“By the time a recruitment decline is evident in the data and there are few juvenile fish to be caught, the time to rebuild the stock will increase and management actions may need to be more broad or long-lasting. The earlier management actions take place the more quickly the depleted stock can rebuild,” the NOAA statement continued.
The most recent stock assessment was completed in 2014.