Conservation & Science

Julie Packard: Shaping a bright future for bluefin tunas

From Jan. 18-20, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University are convening the world’s leading bluefin tuna researchers, policymakers and stakeholders for the Bluefin Futures Symposium in Monterey. Using the power of its global expertise and diverse perspectives, the group is exploring opportunities for international collaboration. Together, the participants are working to create a roadmap toward healthy and sustainable wild bluefin tuna populations across the world’s ocean. Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard shared these thoughts to open the symposium.


All of us at this important gathering are here because we have a stake in the future of these remarkable fish — whether bluefin tunas are an important part of your country’s culture; as economic opportunity for your communities and nations; or as vital components of a thriving, healthy ocean. Since opening, the Aquarium has helped inspire a transformation in public understanding of the sea, and its role in our future.  We know now that living and healthy ocean ecosystems are critical to enabling life on Earth to exist. Their future will determine our future — and in fact, our very survival.

Executive Director Julie Packard. Photo courtesy Motofumi Tai.
Executive Director Julie Packard. Photo courtesy Motofumi Tai.

We depend on the ocean in so many ways. It’s our pantry, our lungs, our playground, a massive driver of global commerce, a storehouse for innovation to meet human needs, and a source of inspiration and joy. And, we now know that the ocean is changing. Overfishing, pollution and habitat change — from the coast to the deep sea — have escalated at a dangerous pace. And the vast impacts of carbon pollution, from rising sea levels to acidifying waters, are no longer hypothetical. They’re here now, from Miami to Mumbai.

Today, here on the coast of the continent, at this moment in time, we are in fact, both literally and figuratively, on the edge. We’ve accomplished an amazing array of effective models for ocean governance and conservation, and there’s lots to celebrate. But we’ve got to step up our pace.  The collective action of everyone in this room, whatever we decide to do in the next few years, will shape the future for critical species like bluefin tunas.

Examples of success

The good news is that I’m confident we can turn the tide — by investing in people and ideas to demonstrate solutions, and to do the hard work required to reach agreement on a path forward.  Why do I think this? Because we have examples right in front of us.

Just one month ago, leaders from around the world gathered in Paris to tackle another, seemingly insurmountable challenge: to put the world on a path to a clean energy future that will spare us from the devastating consequences of unchecked global climate change. Faced with the gravity of the threat, the delegates to COP 21 were able to overcome their disagreements and their differences. They crafted an accord that puts our planet on course to a sustainable future — for people, and for the living ecosystems on which our survival depends.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium occupies the site of a former sardine cannery.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium occupies the site of a former sardine cannery.

They didn’t solve the problem in one series of meetings, but  the COP 21 negotiations mark a turning point on climate change. We have the opportunity, in the next three days, to mark a similar turning point for the future of bluefin tunas. And there is no better place on Earth for this to happen than here in Monterey, California.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium stands  on the site of what was once the largest sardine cannery on Cannery Row — an industrial district that was home to the largest fish-packing operations on the planet until the sardine fishery collapsed because of a combination of mismanagement and ecosystem change.

From exploitation to recovery

Sardines weren’t the only ocean life targeted by humans. People hunted sea otters, sea lions and elephant seals to near extinction right off our shore. Once-thriving whale populations were decimated as their blubber was turned into oil to light our homes. With the loss of sea otters, kelp forests disappeared — in turn affecting habitats for other commercially valuable fish, and altering the very structure of the ecosystem here.

When the Aquarium opened, Monterey Bay was already recovering. How did that happen?

A humpback whale breaches in Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy Jim Capwell.
A humpback whale breaches in Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy Jim Capwell.

Because people took action to protect and recover wildlife and ecosystems. It started in 1911, with the International Fur Seal Treaty that outlawed commercial hunting of seals, sea lions and sea otters in the North Pacific. Decades later, a devastating oil spill just south of here, in Santa Barbara, triggered a flood of environmental protection legislation in the United States: The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, and many more. In the 1970s, as these laws were being enacted here in the U.S., countries around the world began to focus more attention on conservation of our ocean resources, including the creation of The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas and measures to protect marine mammals. And the wildlife here in California’s coastal ocean began to recover.

Today, when you look out on Monterey Bay, you’ll see the surface waters of one of the largest national marine sanctuaries in the United States. California, in the past decade, created the largest statewide network of marine protected areas anywhere in our nation. And U.S law now mandates science-based catch limits and rebuilding of fish stocks. Our local fisheries are coming back, along with the fishing fleets that rely on healthy fish populations to make a living and to feed our people.

Public inspiration — and scientific rigor

The Aquarium has been a big part of that story because we are more than simply a place for people to come and see living ocean exhibits. Founded by marine biologists, the Aquarium has always had a larger mission: To inspire conservation of the ocean.

Chuck Farwell of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Barbara Block of Stanford University tag a Pacific bluefin tuna for the study. Photo courtesy Tuna Research and Conservation Center.
Chuck Farwell of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Barbara Block of Stanford University tag a Pacific bluefin tuna. Photo courtesy Tuna Research and Conservation Center.

Today, we are not only the most innovative and admired public aquarium in the nation. We are also a leader in ocean science — notably in our two decades of research at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center. There, with our partners at Stanford, we have been doing some of the most advanced and innovative science in support of bluefin recovery. We’ve tagged and tracked bluefin tunas in the Atlantic and Pacific — developing an unprecedented body of basic science to inform management of these fish. Because we can keep bluefin and yellowfin tunas in our Open Sea exhibit and in holding tanks at the TRCC, we have also generated information about tuna physiology and biomechanics that is unique in the world. More than 200 scientific papers have come out of the work at the TRCC — with more to come.

Our goal is to share our data in scientific journals and with the modelers, managers and stakeholders who will determine the future of bluefin tunas. We know that developing the science, and adhering strictly to science-based advice in managing these fish, is the key to recovery of their stocks. Put simply, in looking at the health of fisheries around the world, one thing is clear. Well-managed fisheries all have a common ingredient: good scientific data. Where data are poor, it is impossible to establish catch levels that are sustainable in the long term.

Working across ocean basins

We’re working here in the U.S. and internationally to ensure that management decisions are informed by the best available science, and that we share a common vision of sustainability. But this is only possible when we share information with one another, in forums like this. We’re working toward the kind of recovery for bluefin tunas that we’ve seen for other animals and ecosystems here in Monterey Bay, and in California’s coastal waters. But we know that it is much more challenging to orchestrate recovery with species that migrate across political and management boundaries.

We also know that business leadership and engagement are essential to solve the challenges we face. Indeed, the Aquarium was created through collaboration between a technology business leader and conservation scientists.

Monterey Bay Aquarium business partners are making time-bound commitments to source seafood sustainably.
Monterey Bay Aquarium business partners are making time-bound commitments to source seafood sustainably.

That’s why I’ve encouraged international business leaders to embrace new approaches and commitments that will ensure economic prosperity and ocean health. It’s a message I’ve brought to The Economist World Ocean Summit and the World Trade Organization. And it’s an approach we’ve advocated in our work with the national ocean commissions in the U.S., and through international initiatives to help Aquarium business partners use their purchasing power to shift seafood production toward a more sustainable future.

We need the same level of commitment in our approach to bluefin tunas.

Cooperation and collaboration

Bluefin tunas are the perfect example of species that can achieve sustainability only when we cooperate and collaborate. Local fleets could head offshore in California this year and catch  fish from the population that is here. But those fish will only be here for a few years, at most, before they travel across the Pacific to spawning grounds near Japan. We can’t manage them sustainably just by taking action here in California, in U.S. waters, or even in the Eastern Pacific. The solution requires cross-Pacific collaboration involving all the nations involved, and by two Regional Fisheries Management Bodies.

Southern bluefin tuna have their own unique set of stakeholders and challenges, and the situation in the Atlantic is particularly complex given the scientific uncertainties and number of countries involved. In every case, though, the need for action is urgent — and there are plenty of opportunities for transformational success.

Atlantic bluefin tuna recovery is a topic of the Bluefin Futures Symposium. Photo © Gilbert van Ryckevorsel.
Atlantic bluefin tuna recovery is a topic of the Bluefin Futures Symposium. Photo © Gilbert van Ryckevorsel.

Globally, where bluefin tuna populations are recovering, it’s the result of hard work, investments in research and willingness by all parties to turn things around. The next three days are just the beginning of a new conversation and what it will take, from all of us, to assure the sustainability of bluefin tunas in the future.

If we’re successful — and I’m confident we will be — our commitment to worldwide bluefin tuna recovery will create a lasting model of how to achieve sustainability for a species that is both iconic and a  vital player in our global ocean ecosystems. By collaborating, in all the diversity of our perspectives and points of view, we can achieve great things and, together, shape a bright future for bluefin tunas.

Featured photo: Bluefin tuna in the Open Sea exhibit © Charlene Boarts.

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