Overfishing of the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna

Southern bluefin tuna (Thunnus maccoyii); South Australia, Australia

Some Facts About Bluefin Tuna

The Atlantic bluefin tuna averages 500 pounds in weight, this massive sea monster can produce around 10,000 pieces of sushi from one fish. In Japanese culture the sushi industry is of huge importance, for both financial and cultural reasons. The tuna industry contributes largely to the sushi industry. With the rapid decline in stock numbers the possibility of extinction for this species is rising. For sushi lovers worldwide this means beloved spicy tuna rolls and sashimi would be off the menu, for good.

A few types of tuna in the world include the Albacore, Southern bluefin, Bigeye, Pacific bluefin and Atlantic bluefin, the popular species on the East Coast is the Atlantic bluefin tuna. Between the Eastern and Western coasts of the Atlantic Ocean the Atlantic bluefin tuna resides in these areas. Along with living in two different areas, these fish migrate from this area to spawn in the Mediterranean Sea. In the wild the average lifespan of the Atlantic bluefin tuna is 15 years and can reach up to six and a half feet long. These fish have a carnivorous diet that includes mackerel, herring, squid and sardines. Reaching a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour they pose a big threat to smaller fish. Unfortunately with all of the overfishing the bluefin tuna population is currently endangered.

In the United States most tuna fishing occurs in the Atlantic Ocean in smaller commercial fishing boats. The larger fish caught are overnighted to Japan to insure the best price possible is negotiated. Western Atlantic stocks of bluefin tuna are severely overfished, leading to over-harvesting of the eastern stocks due to high demand in Asian markets. According to Longo (2012) “While western Atlantic stocks have been critically depleted and have become less commercially viable, the eastern Atlantic stock has remained a major source of Atlantic bluefin tuna to supply the global market, particularly Japan” (p. 205). Fish caught in the United States are exported to Japan for sale at fish markets. In Japan, the bluefin tuna is utilized in sushi and sold for thousands of dollars per pound. Forbes (2013) found that “Kimura paid 155.4 million yen (US $1.76 million) for the 488 pound fish. That’s around $3,600 per pound”. Due to the increased demand for these fish the price per pound is extremely large.

Both the Eastern and Western stocks of tuna have the same spawning location, the Mediterranean Sea. Fishing practices have increased in the Mediterranean Sea due to the ease of catching tuna in these areas because of the large amounts of fish in one area at the same time. The practice of fishing in the Mediterranean Sea where the tuna go to spawn is severely diminishing the tuna stock in the Atlantic, Longo (2012) states,“Western Atlantic bluefin stocks have experienced a dramatic depletion. Spawning stock biomass (adult-aged fish) has declined to about 20–29 percent of 1970 levels” (p. 204). The fishing for bluefin tuna has drastically changed since it was introduced. Longo (2012), “Early Mediterranean civilizations developed methods to capture bluefin that migrated close to shorelines, including the construction of elaborate traps (p. 206). Trap technology has increased over time, trapping transformed into an industrialized business since its start in Sicily and Italy. Longo (2012) states, “Fishing operations use large-scale, highly mechanized fishing gear, notably long-liners, which can have up to 3,000 baited hooks, and purse-seiners, which can have a carrying capacity of up to 4,000 tons.” (p. 218).


Current Issues with the Tuna Market

Western stocks of bluefin tuna are already severely depleted with the eastern stocks close behind due to how current fishing is occurring. To try and combat overfishing of the Atlantic bluefin tuna, catch quotas are in place and organizations are established to implement these quotas. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) currently monitors the level of bluefin tuna and sets quotas to created sustainable fishing. Longo (2012) states the fishing fleet in the Mediterranean employs a variety of ways to find the tuna including “net lifting cranes, extending vessel length, increasing purse-seine net efficiency, installing more efficient main seine winches and more powerful seine skiffs, and using tuna-spotting aircrafts and sonar detection” (p. 218).Without quotas in place fishing fleets would deplete tuna stocks and extinction would occur. The ICCAT decides quota limits and changes yearly. According to Longo (2012), “By 2008, the capacity of the purse-seine fleet in the Mediterranean was almost 55,000 tons (WWF 2008). It should be noted that the 2008 total allowable catch set by ICCAT was 28,500 tons, about half of the purse-seine fleet capacity” (pp. 218-219). The ICCAT is also in charge of enforcing the quotas and making sure the fisherman don’t exceed what they are allowed to catch.

The Mediterranean shore hosts one of the two known spawning groups of Atlantic bluefin tuna. This area depended on the fish as a means of income and also doubled as a food source. These groups created special traps for catching this species of fish, but the traps made were used so that the species population was still sustainable. The problem with the development of this technology is other groups wanting to capture this fish creating an arms race between fisheries. As the trap technology increased it became easier for fishermen to catch more fish without putting in as much labor.

Bluefin tuna numbers are affected so greatly he reasoning for the bluefin tuna’s numbers being affected so greatly is their reproductive rate being much slower than other species. This species of fish does not reproduce until a much later age and when they are of a larger size. If this species is being caught young and at smaller sizes they never reach maturity and do not have the ability to spawn and create young.


Japanese Culture

Many of those living in Japan now do not realize how depleted the bluefin tuna stocks are. In the Japanese culture fish in general is a staple food in their diet, many of these individuals consume fish on a very regular basis. Especially with tuna this is a high priced fish that can reach prices up to $21 for one piece of tuna. This fish is an indicator of wealth due to its high price, the average citizen does not have the ability to purchase such a expensive fish (Foster, 2013). Those living in that area believe that it is a propaganda scam and continue to eat it at their leisure. Foster (2013) states in the Japanese culture “Eating fish is a fundamental part of Japanese culture.” Some areas such as Europe and the US have removed tuna off of the menu in attempts to solve the problems. But unfortunately in Japan most restaurants have no plans on taking this item off of the menu because of the high amounts of money this fish can retrieve. Without the removal of this item or a implemented strategy this species may become extinct soon.

The decline in the number of Atlantic bluefin tuna in the wild directly affects the cost of the Atlantic bluefin tuna for sushi markets. Due to its lowered population numbers, if this species continues to decline the prices of this fish will continually increase. But if these fish are continually overfished the average fish size will decrease because of the lack of the ability to reach a mature weight due to fishing pressures. Since these fish take longer than most other speices to reach their mature sizes, increased fishing pressure will force fishermen to continually bring in these fish, even if they are not fully grown. For the fishermen this could become detrimental, smaller fish do not bring in as much money as a larger one. The prices they these fish used to reach won’t be as high because of the smaller weight and size.

Extinction of this species would result in the loss of biodiversity of fish served in the sushi industry and a huge hit to the economics of the industry. These fish are valued at such high prices that a loss of the species results in a huge hit to the fishing economy. In Japan Foster (2013) writes that eating tuna is a “special treat that families might splurge on once every month or two.” The loss of this type of fish would be detrimental to Japanese culture.

Issues With The Current Regulations

At the time there is thought to be 20-29% left of the spawning stock. There numbers are extremely low are in drastically decreasing. If the decrease of these fish continues to happen there is the possibility for inbreeding. Programs have been established to try to implement farm raised tuna but these programs have been unsuccessful thus far. Catching these fish young and trying to raise them to full adult maturity in captivity has depleted the stock more than it has helped it. Those that have managed to create some of these stocks in captivity have not had as large of a volume as predicted.

Overfishing and illegal catching is a major contributor to such low stocks of this species. Especially in the Mediterranean Sea area a majority of the fish harvested fall under the category of being illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. About 40% of the fish that are caught in that area fall under the category of being illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing catches.

The ICCAT was created to maintain the levels of the Atlantic bluefin tuna but in many ways have had trouble setting laws. This fish is technically listed as common property and has a shared stock. The quotas for these fish are regulated by the ICCAT but recently they have not been monitoring the amounts caught as well as they should be. Quota limitations that are set by scientists are not being used by the ICCAT. The ICCAT is creating higher quota rates than what scientists are suggesting, thus adding to the overfishing problem.

Tragedy of the Commons

The overfishing of the Atlantic Bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean provides a perfect example of Garrett Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons is an economic theory by Hardin that dictates that individuals will act both independently and rationally in their own best interest with disregard to the damage they are doing to others. The tragedy of the commons is an extension of the population problem that is defined as an increase of population results in increased depletion of the resource. According to Hardin (1964);

“Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.”

where multiple individuals who share a resource will deplete the resource with their own interests in mind without regard of the damage they are doing to the resource. The spawning grounds of the Atlantic Bluefin tuna are a prime example of the commons being exploited and depleted by fishermen under the belief that if they choose not to take the fish another fisherman inevitably will. This economic theory illustrates why fisherman of the Mediterranean Sea however a solution to the tragedy of the commons is a complicated one. Hardin (1964) writes that “The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality”. Where a solution to the tragedy of the commons is virtually non-existent because it would have to rely on the morality of the individual user of the resource and their ability to value the well beings of others who rely on the resource. Due to this an external governing body will need to take measures and implement a system to protect the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna from being overfished where users who value the communal benefit over their own marginal gains will be rewarded and those who do not will be met with punitive actions.


Multi-tiered solution

The major issue with overfishing of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna in the Mediterranean Sea has always been the inability to enforce safe catch limits set by ICCAT. If fisherman abide by the safe catch limit set by the ICCAT then the Atlantic bluefin Tuna population will easily rebound to healthier sustainable levels. The major issues with overfishing in the Mediterranean Sea are fisherman, and tuna farms fishing far greater than the safe catch limit without regards to the regulations or laws so a multi-tiered solution that integrates both punitive and preemptive measures where fisherman who do not comply will be forced to pay fines and taxes. A major measure that should also be introduced is a licensure and fine system that will introduce funding into the ICCAT organization to better regulate the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna fisheries. In tandem with the aforementioned measures the ICCAT should also restrict fishing in the Atlantic Bluefin Tunas spawning grounds.

An Atlantic Bluefin Tuna commercial fishing licensure system where commercial boats are required to hold a license to legally fish in the Mediterranean Sea is integral to this multi-tiered solution. The licensure system would work much like any other commercial fishing license where fishing boats must be within a certain size so they can only hold a certain amount of fish at a time. The major punitive measure that will be put in place is that those fishermen who choose to violate the regulations will be given fines and those who continually fail to comply lose their license to commercially fish for tuna.

             The pre-emptive measure that the ICCAT can take is to electronically mark and monitor every tuna caught. This would involve all commercial tuna fisherman electronically tagging all tuna that are caught and when they reach their limit they are sent a notification immediately. This measure will help the scientists of ICCAT track the tuna populations and monitor fisherman and farms if they are complying with the laws and regulations specifically the catch limit. If the fisherman or farms refuse to comply then they will be met with punitive measures.

              A measure to address tuna ranches where tuna are being held in captivity outside of their natural environment is to restrict tuna farmers from holding Atlantic Bluefin Tuna in ranches. The practice of capturing tunas and corralling them into ranches needs to be restricted since tuna held in ranches do not reproduce due to improper spawning conditions they reach mature age without reproducing which hurts their populations ability to rebound.

A majority of the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna harvesting is done in the mediterranean sea primarily in and around the spawning grounds so as to help the species population rebound the ICCAT must restrict fishing in their spawning grounds and turn them into Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Marine Protected Areas are defined as:

“A marine protected area (MPA) is a section of the ocean where a government has placed limits on human activity. Many MPAs allow people to use the area in ways that do not damage the environment. Some ban fishing. A few do not allow people to enter the area at all.“ (National Geographic Education).

Turning the tuna species spawning grounds into MPA’s will help the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna population rebound to healthy levels and save the species from extinction.


The Opposing Markets

Our proposal to turn conservation areas from known tuna spawning areas would have a lot of backlash from a couple groups. Fishermen are a group that would fight against the proposal in the Mediterranean Sea because of the higher restrictions on the tuna market. If tuna spawning areas are converted into protected conservation areas, fishermen in these areas lose not only fishing grounds but profits from the lack of fishing. Global tuna prices will rise due to the lack of tuna caught and sold in fish markets. Initially less tuna is available, but in the long run it will allow for Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks to replenish themselves and become self sustaining again. Fisherman will adapt and find more sustainable fishing methods in other areas that do not include spawning grounds for the tuna. Alteration of fishing practices will occur, changes to the use of large casting nets and other industrialized fishing methods will take place and a location change of fishing grounds. Limiting areas where the fisherman can catch tuna will cost initially cost them profit because catch quotas are not as easily filled. They will need to look harder and go farther to get catch fish. This will be a big nuisance to the fisherman but it will give fish the opportunity to reproduce without declining their numbers in such a rapid fashion. In the long run the amount of Atlantic bluefin tuna will start to rise, allowing for the repopulation of a species and to create a sustainable fish community.

Another opposing group to limited fishing areas is the global tuna market because with this policy implemented much less tuna is available. Demand will stay the same but prices for tuna will rise worldwide. Tuna consumers in the short run may become angered because of the rapid increase in price. In the long run the fish will become more abundant and the prices will go down and stabilize. If fishing practices continue the Atlantic bluefin tuna will face extinction at which point any conservative actions taken would be of no use. Increased protection for the Atlantic bluefin tuna needs to happen immediately to avoid further depletion of this species.


Marine Protected Areas are the Answer


New regulations and marine protected areas need to be enacted soon to prevent the Bluefin tuna from extinction. If current fishing practices and current regulations remain the same there is a high chance the tuna will face extinction. As a result of overfishing there are less tuna spawning every year or even reaching a mature spawning size. Tuna are an important part of culture and and diet. Current regulations and efforts to rebuild the tuna population are not working well enough. To combat this decline of tuna there needs to be more regulation on the fish to make sure people do not over fish and catch more than their limit. The most important action that needs to be taken to help the tuna population is setting up marine protected areas in their spawning grounds. This will prevent fishermen from going to one of their known spawning areas and easily catching all of the fish.  This will have opposition, but it is needed to preserve the fish. In the long run the tuna will repopulate there will be a sustainable supply of fish.

Works Cited:


Forbes, P. (January 7, 2013). Bluefin tuna sells for record $1.76 million in tokyo. Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://eater.com/archives/2013/01/07/bluefin-tuna-sells-for-record-176-million-in-tokyo.php

ICCAT. Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://www.iccat.es/en/

Longo, S. B., & Clark, B. (2012). The commodification of bluefin tuna: The historical transformation of the mediterranean fishery. Journal of Agrarian Change, 12(2), 204-226.

Protected Areas – How Marine Protected Areas Help Alleviate Poverty | The Nature Conservancy. (n.d.). Protected Areas – How Marine Protected Areas Help Alleviate Poverty | The Nature Conservancy. Retrieved April 29, 2014, from http://www.nature.org/science-in-action/protected-areas-how-marine-protected-areas-help-alleviate-poverty.xm

Tuna Research and Conservation Center. About the TRCC. Retrieved April 29, 2014, from http://www.tunaresearch.org/

Marine Protected Area.  – National Geographic Education. Retrieved April 29, 2014, from http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/encyclopedia/marine-protected-area/?ar_a=

Marine protected areas conserve, manage, and protect. What is a marine protected area?. Retrieved April 29, 2014, from http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/mpa.html

Block, B. A., Dewar, H., Blackwell, S. B., Williams, T. D., Prince, E. D., Farwell, C. J., et al. (2001). Migratory movements, depth preferences, and thermal biology of atlantic bluefin tuna. Science, 293(5533), 1310-1314.

Einhorn, B. Farm-raised tuna may not be the answer to overfishing. Retrieved April 29, 2014, from http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-01-08/farm-raised-tuna-may-not-be-the-answer-to-overfishing

Escontrela, D. The overfishing of mediterranean bluefin tuna. Retrieved April 29, 2014, from http://rjd.miami.edu/conservation/the-overfishing-of-mediterranean-bluefin-tuna

Foster, M. (2013). Japan’s bluefin tuna is disappearing, but few chefs fear shortage. Retrieved April 29, 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/28/bluefin-tuna-disappearing-japan_n_2779577.html

Milatou, N., & Megalofonou, P. (2014). Age structure and growth of bluefin tuna (thunnus thynnus, L.) in the capture-based aquaculture in the mediterranean sea. Aquaculture, 424–425(0), 35-44.

Sumaila, U. R., & Huang, L. (2012). Managing bluefin tuna in the mediterranean sea. Marine Policy, 36(2), 502-511.




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