Tuna Overfishing: Taking Too Much from Worlds Oceans Essay

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Scientific accounts and anecdotal memoirs support the revealing facts that tuna, an important commercial fish, has been disappearing much faster than one thinks.  As more and more illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing thrives on the principle of catching more and catching quickly, tuna populations would critically diminish causing the global tuna industry at the brink of closure or collapse.  How far illegal fishers would bend the rules as they can, nobody knows for sure.

Tuna, an important commercial species

            Most tuna species dwell in worlds oceans, which include the family Scombridae and genus Thunnus.  Some species, however, can adjust themselves to freshwater conditions.  Ordinarily, fishes have white meat but for tunas, their flesh has pink to reddish hue due to the presence of myoglobin, a form of hemoglobin occurring in muscle fibers.  Some tuna species are warm-blooded, which makes them to raise their body temperature enabling them to have a wider degree of survival (BBC News, Science-Nature 2007)

In the family Scombridae, some important species of tuna under the Thunnus genus include the Blackfin tuna, Southern bluefin tuna, Bigeye tuna, Pacific bluefin tuna, Northern bluefin tuna, Longtail tuna, Yellowfin tuna and Albacore.  It is also worth mentioning some other species (falling under other genera but with same Scombridae family) like Frigate tuna, Skipjack tuna, Slender tuna, Dogtooth tuna, and Bullet tuna, among others.

In reality, some favorite commercial tuna species face rapid commercial extinction.  One of these species is the Bluefin tuna, which Europe recently has closed for fishing.  BBC news reports have reinforced and confirmed the sad nature of Bluefin tuna.  Such news reports have appeared  bearing headlines like: Europe Bans Bluefin Tuna Fishing, Nations  Agree to Cut in Tuna Quotas, Farming Endangered Bluefin Tuna, and Only 50 Years Left for Sea Fish.

Dwindling population

Despite of the newer management and conservation measures proposed by ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna), tuna population continues to roll down due to unabated overfishing, which obviously felt in the late 1960s.  Spawning adult Bluefin tunas have reached an alarming depletion at just 13% of the already depleted 1975 figure.  The eastern tuna population is currently massively overfished, 3 times more that its population can sustain.  This species has been marked as overfished and endangered.  The same fish has been greatly reduced and has already vanished from the North Sea and the Black Sea.

The new practice of cage-fattening the Bluefin tuna caught from the wild to support the insatiable appetite for sushi and sashimi outlets  has pushed more fleets fishing beyond the international territory borders.  They even go beyond the agreed international quotas (WWF, Fattened in Cages, 2007).

When fishermen caught mostly the undersized fish far from the average of 140 kilos, one can only surmised that what they are getting are the spawners.  Most of these fishing vessels operate in the spawning grounds of the Mediterranean Sea.  Some fishing vessels coming from the Mediterranean coast like Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Turkey and elsewhere join together and scoop tuna fish by tonnes according to, or otherwise, annual quotas set by ICCAT.

Overfishing, Bycatch, and Population Decline

Due to newer methods of catching tuna, overfishing has been pushed further afield.  With the use of longlining, a very efficient practice that uses up to 60 miles of bated hooks spread in the vast migration point of the Atlantic Ocean, fishers also catch some non-target species like sharks and sea turtles. Further refinement of this method, however, remains unsuccessful (Marine Fisheries & Aquaculture Series, 2007).

Incidental to fishing tuna is a problem called bycatch.  This refers to the capturing by incident, of non- target marine species.  Bycatch causes some problems such as waste of time, and funding; it also causes population decline of marine animals.  Some of the species caught unintentionally include millions of juvenile red snappers, over 300,000 small whales, dolphins, and porpoises that die due to entanglement in fishing nets, some 250,000 endangered loggerhead turtles, and many species of seabirds.  Reports say that about 83% of hammerhead sharks and about 80% of white sharks have disappeared from the North-East Atlantic Ocean due to bycatch.  Meanwhile, longlining fleets coming from several nations after having fully exploited their fishing grounds, now have advanced further fishing in warmer waters where most of the tunas migrate, spawn, and breed.

Expressing her views on fishing exploitation, Professor Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University believes that two-thirds of marine fisheries have been totally exploited and there exist in the oceans some multiple changes brought mainly by overfishing and some other minor factors.  As a marine biologist, she states her viewpoints as:

This fishing down the food web has very serious ramifications for entire marine ecosystems with consequences to other wildlife as well as to fishing communities. When you remove the top predators of a system, there is a cascade of consequences that works its way down through the food web. In fact there are often very serious and abrupt changes at lower trophic levels that result.

Human activities have inadvertently modified ocean systems in ways that we didnt imagine would be possible. We are currently changing the chemistry, the physical structure and the biology of our oceans. Its time that we used a more cautious approach in making decisions about the oceans. The oceans and the life in them are too valuable to risk losing. Instead of assuming that there is no consequence or that things can always rebound, we need to be much more cautious in our activities and err on the side of protecting ocean resources for the future (Marine Fisheries & Aquaculture Series, Viewpoints 2007).

Empty Oceans, Empty Trappers Nets

Anecdotal memoirs have recorded the vanishing and slow decline of tuna.  A certain tuna trapper, Diego Crespo of Southern Spain, has his own memoirs to tell the upcoming generation on the over exploitation and overfishing of their livelihood source”the Bluefin tuna.   Starting some 3,000 years back, Diegos ancestors were regular Bluefin tuna trappers.  Just this year, Diego has observed the demise of the tuna reaching a very critical level.  The catch they make now becomes so erratic.  And they are not getting enough tuna.  The trapping season that usually lasts for more months have gone for just a few days, he laments.

He remembers that at the start of the Bluefin tuna fishing season, they used to catch what they call chatos weighing some 200 kilos.  Today, they express regret that none of them have seen this creature for more than a decade.  Besides, trappers have experienced a sudden drop in tuna catch by 80%.  This drop has affected the traditional fishing communities that depend mainly on Bluefin tuna.  They, however, regret having no alternative species to depend on.  Now they are facing the stark reality resulting from tuna overfishing, which they said nothing has happened like that before.  Its demise would certainly halt transferring this ancient tradition to the next trapper generation (WWF, Trapper story, 2007).

The arrival of numerous tuna fleets and the establishment of tuna farms have pushed the traditional trappers to the limit.  This has affected catch volumes and the prices that have gone down to the bottom.     And now they blame the ICCAT for being irresponsible in doing its duty of conserving the Bluefin tuna.  As the mood in this part of Spain becomes bleaky, they feel regretful for not having spared some thoughts on tunas long-term survival.  The overfishing effects could be irreversible, they fear, that the life-giving species has reached its destiny.  And the trappers, too.

Quotas: Hot Political Issue

Though scientists from ICCAT have warned those concerned of the parlous state of the tuna industry, the commission has refused reducing quotas for the Bluefin tuna. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has instead asked the EU countries and other nations to let half of their quotas go to conservation purposes to prevent the collapse of the tuna industry.  The annual catch quota has been whittled down to 15,000 tonnes based on the recommendation by the international scientists and the WWF.

Sometime earlier in January 2007, WWF called for a strong tuna monitoring system a global catch documentation system, to halt the reduction of tuna stocks, which hopes to strengthen the program (BBC News, Asia-Pacific, 2007; WWF, Monitoring System, 2007).  The body also called for measures to reduce bycatches of some threatened species incidental to tuna fishing.  Five members of the Regional Fisheries Management Organization, namely, the Western Central Pacific Ocean Fisheries Commission, ICCAT, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna, and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission met and discussed on how to  improve the management of the worlds tuna resources.  They also formulated some measures to control poaching and unreported and unregulated fishing.

            On the individual level, some people concerned with tunas demise have made efforts alleviating the uncertain state of tuna.  One person, for instance, is Caroline Bennet who owns fast-selling sushi bar chains.  She made a strong decision banning the inclusion of bluefin tuna in all of the chains menus.  Another person, Richard Ellis, a historian, made a love story book on tuna.  The book is simply titled: Tuna: A Love Story.

            On a lesser level, overfishing has created a side effect as seen by the surfacing of some disdainful fish species now served on menus. These species are previously considered as rat of the sea with low-brow quality.  Restaurant habitus may ask for a favorable second opinion serving the species on their plates (Koerner, 2003 May 15).

            Another factor that gives boost to heavy tuna consumption is the booming of tuna processing industry.  In the US, 3 major brands: Starkist, Chicken of the Sea, and Bumble Bee, dominate the US tuna market.  In 2001, the US leads in canned tuna market, consuming some 46 million cases (28%) from the worlds total consumption of 165 million cases (DOL, 2007 November 14).  Meanwhile, Japan has appeared to be the biggest tuna consumer, eating up some one quarter of the global catch (ABC News Online, 2007 January 26).

A Moratorium on Overfishing

Recently, the WWF has pursued the pushing for a moratorium on Mediterranean tuna. This moratorium calls for an outright closing of the Mediterranean Bluefin fishing as a result of rampant illegal and uncontrolled catching.  The moratorium has been initiated due to some reports on quota violations by numerous tuna fishing fleets.

For instance, EU fleets exceeded by as much as 4,000 tonnes; France fleets by as much as 5,000 tonnes.  These are instances among other violations.  Other fishing nations, on the other hand, have been reported practicing some types of fraudulent systems such as laundering of over-quota harvest with false catch documentation.

            Meanwhile, with the unabated dwindling of supply, WWF calls on ICCAT to push for a multi-annual closure of the Mediterranean fishery.  This is for at least three years until stocks have recovered and until sustainable governance has been established.


ABC News Online. (2007 January 26). Conference Approves Global Plan to Save Tuna

 Stocks. Retrieved November 19, 2007 from http://www. abc. net. au/

BBC News. Asia Pacific.  Tuna Groups Tackle Overfishing. (2007 January 26).

 Retrieved November 19, 2007 from http://news.bbc.co.uk

BBC News. (2007) Science/Nature.  Last Rites for s Marine Marvel? Retrieved

            November 18, 2007 from http://news.bbc.co.uk

DOL. (2007 November 19). Tuna Processing Industry. Retrieved November 19, 2007

            from http://www.dol.gov/esa

Koerner, B. I. (2003, May 15). Tunas Getting Scarce.  Whys It So Cheap? Retrieved

             November 19, 2007 from http://www.slate.com/

Marine Fisheries & Aquaculture Series (2007). Empty Oceans, Empty Nets/Farming the

             Seas. Viewpoints. Retrieved November 19, 2000 from


Ibid. http://www.pbs.org/emptyoceans/eoen/tuna/viewpoints.html

WWF. (2007, August 09). A Tuna Trappers Story.  Retrieved 19 November 2007 from http://panda.org/abvout_wwf/where_we_work/europe/what_we_do/mediterranean/about/marine/bluefin_tuna/r

WWF. (2007). Atlantic Bluefin Tuna Could Soon Collapse.  Retrieved 19 November

             2007 from http://panda.org/about_wwf/

WWF (2007). Fattened in Cages and Shipped to Japan.  Retrieved 19 November 2007 from http://panda.org/news_facts/

WWF. (2007 January 10). WWF Demands Tuna Monitoring System. Retrieved 18 November 2007 from http://www.theage.com.au/

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