It's been a banner year for U.S. fishermen who seek Pacific bluefin tuna in southern California. Anglers not only found numbers of these amazingly engineered fish, but they also caught some of the biggest bluefin seen in decades. The news of these big fish has gone absolutely viral in fishing reports and social media.
The current blitz of big bluefin along the West Coast, and specifically, in California, may lead one to believe that this fishery is thriving. However, the truth of the story is very, very different - there are very few Pacific bluefin left.
Pacific bluefin tuna can grow up to one thousand pounds and live for up to 4 decades. In that time they can travel from the coast of Japan to the coast of Mexico and, in some cases, all the way back. Recreational anglers revere bluefin for their sheer power, while chefs and foodies alike savor the red, fatty meat. As top predators, they also have a valuable role in marine ecosystems. Still, our global lust for Pacific bluefin has hurt it badly.
According to the latest and best-available independent science, just 2.6% of the entire population remains. That's more than depleted--that's borderline collapse. Such a steep decline means the species is teetering on the edge of being wiped out completely.
Even more sobering, the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean warns that, under current conditions, the catch limits now in place have a less than one percent chance of returning the population to healthy levels over the next 20 years.
In short, current management measures are not enough to reverse this crisis. The international fishery management bodies responsible for protecting this population have largely failed. Despite calls from a myriad of stakeholders for the need to end overfishing and implement a Pacific-wide, long-term recovery plan, governments have not been able to muster the political will necessary to do it. And at a meeting in Japan at the end of August, managers left yet again without consensus on ending overfishing or protecting juvenile fish.
The current situation is so dire that we may now be down to only one viable option to immediately end overfishing and allow international governments to get their act together and settle on a plan to bring back the population: a complete moratorium on commercial harvest.
It's really amazing that such a large disconnect exists between marine and terrestrial resource management. After all we've learned over centuries of land management, I can't fathom that a modern day, multibillion dollar terrestrial resource would be allowed to decline so precipitously before managers took necessary action to immediately reverse the problem. But we face this type of situation currently with Pacific bluefin tuna.
However, it doesn't have to be this way. This banner year in the southern California bluefin fishery doesn't have to be the last.
Although the United States is a small player in the total harvest of Pacific bluefin tuna, we need the US government, led by the National Marine Fisheries Service, to take a leadership role in the international management of this species by calling for an immediate end to overfishing as well as the development of a meaningful rebuilding plan. We've reached a "now or never" stage with this species and no sacrifice should be considered too great to rebuild this iconic fishery.
From Oct. 12-14, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission will hold a special meeting in La Jolla to discuss rebuilding Pacific bluefin, and in December, managers will meet for the annual meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. At both commissions, the U.S. plays a pivotal role in changing the conversation and making better rules that govern fisheries.
The longer we wait to take action, the less likely it will be that the Pacific bluefin can rebuild. Before the year is over, the U.S. has a chance to take a stand and ensure that declines in populations stop, and a recovery can begin.