Tuna in Trouble

Standard Page - 2011-06-21
Tuna is one of the world’s favorite fish, from simple sandwiches to luxury sashimi. But now it is paying the price for its popularity: Many species of tuna are severely overfished. All around the world, tuna are in trouble. In the last few years fleets from Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea have caught a huge majority of the Pacific tuna that once thrived. Which is why the bluefin tuna catch has been in decline, in both the number and the size of fish.

Tuna is one of the world’s favorite fish, from simple sandwiches to luxury sashimi. But now it is paying the price for its popularity: Many species of tuna are severely overfished. All around the world, tuna are in trouble. In the last few years fleets from Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea have caught a huge majority of the Pacific tuna that once thrived. Which is why the bluefin tuna catch has been in decline, in both the number and the size of fish.

Tuna are incredible creatures. Highly migratory, they travel thousands of miles over their lifetimes. Despite weighing up to 700 kg, the majestic bluefin tuna can accelerate faster than a Porsche and can swim as fast as 43mph – some species travel from North American to European waters several times each year.

But there simply aren’t enough fish to sustain the world’s voracious appetite for tuna. Many species of tuna are endangered or critically endangered.

Rampant over-fishing and illegal, unreported fishing are pushing the ocean’s “natural torpedoes” to the brink of extinction.

Bluefin tuna swimming in a transport cage

Bigeye and yellowfin tuna are fully exploited or over exploited in all oceans. The magnificent bluefin, the most iconic and valuable of all tuna species, is critically endangered.  

In 1999, Greenpeace recorded how Mediterranean bluefin had declined by 80%. With the depletion of Atlantic tuna, the fishing industry then turned to the Pacific Ocean, where tuna stocks had been – until then – relatively healthy. Today, half of all tuna in the world are caught in the Pacific. And as a result, bluefin, yellowfin and bigeye tuna are now in serious trouble in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean as well.

Large modern fishing ships are able to take as much tuna in two days as whole countries can take in a year. Pirate fishing is even worse: These ships ignore regulations and catch quotas, and fish illegally. They are effectively stealing from the Pacific island nations and denying them much-needed food security and income.

A net bulging with tuna and bycatch

Know your tuna

Skipjack tuna is usually found in canned tuna – it has the largest volume of all tuna fisheries. Yellowfin, a much more commercially valuable species, makes up 35% of the world’s catch. The majestic bluefin only represents a tiny portion of the landed volume of tuna, but its dollar value is astronomical. In 2011, a single bluefin tuna set an all-time record when it sold for US$396,000 in Japan.

A family selling skipjack tuna at the fish market in Honiara, Solomon Islands

Bluefin – which matures very slowly – yellowfin, and bigeye are all overfished. While skipjack tuna is not yet overfished, it will be in the future if current catch rates continue. What’s more, the methods for catching skipjack often catch young yellowfin and bigeye.

What’s more, long-line fishing for tuna, regardless of species, results in large amounts of bycatch. The global tuna fisheries kill 100 million sharks and tens of thousands of sea turtles every year, causing devastation to the entire fishing system.

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