Building bridges across an ocean to save a species

From a human perspective, the ocean is mind-bogglingly vast, deep and mysterious. Many of us live along the coast, or visit it on vacation, but few have experienced the high seas. We may not think much about marine life until it’s on our plates.

Chef Ed Kenney

But this week Ed Kenney, a Hawaii-based celebrity chef and a member of the Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force, called on people to rethink our appetite for one particular fish: Pacific bluefin tuna. These huge, fast predators, which migrate thousands of miles across the Earth’s largest ocean, are now down to less than 3 percent of their historical abundance due to overfishing.

“We chefs must take Pacific bluefin off our menus now, and give these powerful fish a chance to rebound,” Kenney writes on the National Geographic Ocean Views blog.

The Aquarium shares his concerns. For years, our scientists have been working to unravel the mysteries of the fish itself, by studying live bluefin in the lab, keeping them in our Open Sea exhibit, and tracking them in the wild.

We’ve learned a lot about the movement of Pacific bluefin by tagging more than 1,400 fish off the coast of California. But, mysteriously, not one of these individuals has made it back across the Pacific to spawn in the Sea of Japan.

A Pacific bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis) is released after tagging.

That told us we needed to take a different tack. This year the Aquarium’s tuna team partnered with Japanese colleagues, tagging more than 2,500 bluefin in the West Pacific to learn about their movement during this critical life phase.

Our hope is that the resulting data will help fill critical gaps in our understanding of this severely overfished species.

And that’s where our policy work comes in. Leveraging our bluefin research and policy experience, we are building bridges across the Pacific, and attempting to bring nations together to save a species. Last January we convened the international Bluefin Futures Symposium, bringing together fishing groups, nonprofits and governments from around the world to discuss solutions.

At a critical international meeting in Fukuoka, Japan, later this month, Federal Ocean Policy Manager Josh Madeira and Tuna Research & Conservation Program Manager Chuck Farwell will urge Pacific nations to make serious, science-based commitments to recover bluefin tuna.

That’s Kenney’s hope, too.

A wild Pacific bluefin tuna swims in the Sea of Japan. Photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium/Ethan Estess

“A growing chorus of people around the world, including some Japanese fishermen, are worried about the future of Pacific bluefin tuna,” he writes. “I want their children to be able to carry on Japanese fishing traditions, just as I want Hawaiian fishermen to continue catching bigeye tuna to support our local markets.

“In both cases, it has to be done in a sustainable manner. And that means we need to follow scientific recommendations and adhere to international agreements.”

UPDATE 9/2/16: Pacific nations failed to adopt meaningful new measures to conserve Pacific bluefin tuna during the negotiations in Fukuoka, Japan Aug. 29-Sept. 2, 2016. Nations did not agree to new catch restrictions, but they did take several small steps forward by agreeing to a stepwise approach to rebuilding the stock, including a commitment to set a new rebuilding goal for 2030. Read Monterey Bay Aquarium’s response here.

Featured image: Bejeweled bluefin art at the 2016 Bluefin Futures Symposium, co-hosted by Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University.

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