Atlantic bluefin tuna has often been used as a poster species to highlight the dangers of overfishing — but now the fishery is getting attention for its long-term, successful rebuilding of the stock and return to sustainability.
In December, NMFS released a statement lauding the fishery managers and the industry for returning a popular species to sustainability, reversing the effects of overfishing and returning bluefin tuna to prominence in U.S. markets. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program also changed its recommendations for the western Atalntic bluefin stock, giving the stock a nod of approval for the first time.
“When seafood consumers purchase Atlantic bluefin tuna caught in the United States, they’re supporting robust environmental standards that bolster both bluefin populations and our economy,” wrote Randy Blankinship, chief of NMFS’ Highly Migratory Species Management Division.
For the industry, the announcements and recognition were a reason to celebrate decades of work.
“Bluefin is the glamour fish that is discussed constantly in the media going back at least two decades. And the tenor of that discourse was essentially coming from the environmental organizations and would typically read along the lines of ‘this fish is on the edge of extinction,’” David Schalit, president of the American Bluefin Tuna Association, told National Fisherman. “But we’ve been in a stock rebuilding period, and the stock is now healthy.”
“Why this recognition is finally coming to the surface now has to do with recent abundance — in the East Coast fishery, particularly the Northeast, we have seen a level of abundance that we can't recall ever having seen before. There are so many fish out there. It’s truly impressive,” he said, noting that abundance has been high for the past four years.
The first measurement of the western Atlantic bluefin tuna stock’s spawning stock biomass took place in 1970, and then the fishery was heavily exploited by industrial fishing systems from the mid-70s through the mid-80s, resulting in a dramatic reduction of the SSB — down to about 19 percent of the 1970 measurement.
This sparked a highly restrictive 20-year stock rebuilding program to be launched by NOAA and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.
A 2017 report from ICCAT indicated that the western Atlantic bluefin tuna stock is not experiencing overfishing. The commission has since launched a Management Strategy Evaluation — a process that compares the relative effectiveness for achieving management objectives of different combinations of data collection schemes, methods of analysis and subsequent processes leading to management actions.
Now that the fishery has been deemed healthy by the proper authorities and the evaluation in the works, tuna fishermen in the Northeast are hoping a science-based look at the fishery will lead to a bump in quota for the United States.
“I’ve seen the whole cycle,” said Steve Getto, a Green Harbor, Mass. harpooner who has been in the fishery since 1979. “I remember the days as a kid in Cape Cod Bay seeing schools of giants, and I remember days when it was hard to catch 10 in a season. I’m happy to have seen this fishery recover in my lifetime — but hopefully we are allowed to catch more soon and provide our country with this great source of protein.”
The Atlanic bluefin stock is divided into two sectors — western, which is fished by the United States, Canada and Japan; and eastern — which is fished by European countries. While the highly migratory fish result in a mixed stock, the quotas for the fishery have generally skewed in favor of the eastern stock. Quotas for the eastern stock have bumped up from 13,200 MT in 2013 to 36,000 MT in 2020, compared to the western stock, which has seen a rise from catches of 1,482 MT in 2013 to just 2,350 MT in 2020.
“I would understand if the stocks were completely separate, but we know we’re fishing a mixed stock,” said Grotto. “As a harpooner, we’re more aware of what’s out there visually. We know how many fish are out there… hopefully with the MSE we can take the politics out of setting quotas and have a totally science-backed system.”
“U.S fishermen have been screwed over for decades by ICAAT and U.S. managers,” said Pete Speeches, a rod-and-reel tuna fisherman in southern Maine. “We’ve got a tiny bit of the pie, which we share with Canada and Japan, while we’ve been doing the majority of the conservation work with. Our own government hasn’t gone to bat for us over this, not that that’s a new experience for anyone in fishing.”
The evaluation is set to be complete sometime in 2021, according to Schalit.
While fishermen acknowledge that the distribution of quota will always be an emotionally charged issue, they’re excited to see the fishery recognized as sustainable, for their businesses, the country and the industry as a whole.
“This comeback is the result of a lot of hard work,” said Grotto. "You hit a point in life when you want to leave something for the people following you — you don’t want to be the generation that killed the last buffalo. I want to leave a good fishery behind me, and I think we’re going to be able to do that.”