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.
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’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.
From Jan. 18-20, 2016, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University convened many of the world’s leading bluefin tuna researchers, policymakers and stakeholders for theBluefin Futures Symposiumin Monterey. Together, this diverse group of experts explored opportunities for international collaboration with a common goal: healthy and sustainable wild bluefin tuna populations across the world’s ocean.
The future of bluefin tunas is in the hands of the global community. It depends on our collective ability to work together across sectors — including scientists, governments, businesses and non-governmental organizations — to improve fisheries management and rebuild bluefin tuna populations to sustainable levels.
Nearly 200 experts, representing every
region where bluefin tunas are found, came to Monterey to participate in this unique forum.
“This symposium has filled a clear need for a time and a place where we can have open discussion and inform each other about techniques and strategies that link official science and management decisions with key academics, experts and stakeholders,” said Margaret Spring, the Aquarium’s Chief Conservation Officer and Vice President of Conservation and Science.
The symposium’s first day featured scientific experts from around the world, presenting their latest research on all three bluefin species—Atlantic, Pacific and southern. On the second day, discussions turned to best management practices, exploring how fisheries managers and scientists can work together. Day three focused on key challenges and opportunities, including breakthroughs in bluefin aquaculture, the economics of the tuna trade, and the potential impacts of climate change on bluefin populations.
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 toward healthy and sustainable wild bluefin tuna populations across the world’s ocean.
One of the symposium’s keynote speakers is Maria Damanaki, global managing director for oceans at The Nature Conservancy and former European Union Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.
Maria Damanaki calls bluefin tunas “silver bullets.” The massive fish are some of the fastest creatures in the sea, tearing through the water in shimmery flashes beneath the waves.
There is, unfortunately, no silver bullet to ensure that bluefin tunas are managed sustainably. A long history of overfishing the three major bluefin species reduced their numbers to very low levels, and regional management efforts over the past 50 years have had mixed results in recovering these stocks. The Pacific bluefin tuna population is still in decline, while the southern bluefin, and some populations of Atlantic bluefin, are seeing some improvements.
Damanaki is optimistic that the Bluefin Futures Symposium will facilitate an honest dialogue among the diverse international interest groups and governments with stakes in bluefin tuna management. At the end of the day, she hopes there will be an encouraging outcome.
“This positive message has to be spread, because we need hope,” Damanaki said. “We need to believe that we can do it, and then we’re going to deliver.”
As European Union Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries from 2010 to 2015, Damanaki implemented a strict monitoring program for Atlantic bluefin populations in the Mediterranean Sea. Under her leadership, the European Commission cut the eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna catch quota by over 50 percent and restricted fishing to just one month per year. As a result, the population of eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna have shown signs of recovery.
Still, Damanaki says, sustainable bluefin tuna management has a long way to go. The symposium represents an important step to establish effective and lasting international strategies by bringing together the key people who represent what Damanaki considers the five pillars of bluefin management: the fishing industry, science, policy, non-governmental organizations and technology.
Damanaki hopes the science presented at the symposium will inspire additional research. One of the most pressing needs for each of the three bluefin species: improved population estimates. It’s not easy to count fish that move at fast speeds and travel long distances through the open ocean, even with help from advanced computer modeling. But it’s essential data for policymakers considering tradeoffs between short-term economic interests and long-term recovery of bluefin populations.
Of course, a sustainable future for bluefin tunas depends on more than just data. Damanki says it’s critical for scientists, politicians, NGOs and industry to work together on this issue. And she stresses the importance of partnering with fishers by giving them incentives to cooperate.
“We can’t do this without them.” Damanaki says. “We need all of them to come to a good solution.”
From Jan. 18-20, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University will convene 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 will explore opportunities for international collaboration. Together, the participants will work to create a roadmap toward healthy and sustainable wild bluefin populations across the world’s ocean.
Here, the Aquarium and three symposium sponsors share their thoughts and hopes for Bluefin Futures.
Vice President of Conservation & Science and Chief Conservation Officer, Monterey Bay Aquarium
For decades, scientists around the world have been on a quest to understand bluefin tunas, some of the ocean’s most fascinating, powerful and mysterious top predators. Through our 20 years of collaboration at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University have made significant scientific contributions to our understanding of these amazing animals.
But given increasing global threats, a future with abundant bluefin tunas will require internationally coordinated research, conservation and management. In a global first, the Bluefin Futures Symposium will bring together many of the world’s leading experts on all three bluefin tuna species in advance of international scientific and management meetings. During the symposium, we’ll be sharing the latest research, science-based management approaches and opportunities to define a sustainable path forward for these iconic and ecologically important species.
Monterey Bay Aquarium is honored to co-host this gathering of world experts, and we’re grateful to our many sponsors. I look forward to hearing from our distinguished speakers and participants on how, working together, we can achieve conservation success for bluefin tunas.
Senior Principal Research Scientist, Marine and Atmospheric Research, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation
Bluefin tuna are iconic species which have captured the imagination of people around the globe for millennia. CSIRO has a long history of association with southern bluefin tuna. Our multi-disciplinary research program, over many decades, has made substantial contributions to our knowledge of the species, methods for studying them (such as archival tagging technology), and development of the early cooperative science and management arrangements required to manage the international fishery.
We are very pleased to support the Bluefin Futures Symposium. The meeting provides the first opportunity for the global bluefin tuna community to come together and share their understanding of the current state and potential futures for these spectacular fish and the diverse range of fisheries they support.
I’m looking forward to an insightful and productive meeting. I hope it will stimulate the next phase of international cooperation required to conserve the world’s bluefin populations and the fisheries, societies and cultural traditions that depend on them.
Director of Global Tuna Conservation, The Pew Charitable Trusts
This important symposium is a global call to action. We must work together to identify conservation solutions for bluefin tuna that are grounded in good science. With such a large representation of viewpoints and expertise from the world’s foremost bluefin scientists, managers and stakeholders, there is an opportunity to complete a roadmap for ending overfishing of all bluefin populations, rebuilding them, and putting safeguards in place to ensure bluefin are never overfished again.
High human demand coupled with insufficient management has put at risk all bluefin tuna species at some point during the last 50 years. There are still populations that have been fished to the brink. The Pacific bluefin tuna catch has been so high that just 4 percent of the population remains today. Current management measures won’t do enough to reverse the decline.
All bluefin species should be valued and managed as much for their ecological importance as they are for the price they command at market. It’s especially critical to cooperate and collaborate to save Pacific bluefin.
Russell F. Smith III
Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Fisheries, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
The Bluefin Futures Symposium provides a unique opportunity for us, as scientists and managers, to consider how best to manage bluefin tuna stocks in order to ensure their long-term sustainability.
Working through the regional fishery management organizations, we should develop harvest strategies that take full advantage of innovations – for example, through use of management strategy evaluation – that help us respond to what we know about changes in the stocks and the fisheries.
At the same time, we should apply a precautionary approach to take uncertainties into account. We must also adopt objectives that lead to meaningful progress in rebuilding depleted stocks. Like the joint tuna regional fisheries management organization process (also known as the Kobe process), this symposium allows us to compare experiences in different oceans and consider how lessons learned might apply elsewhere.
Bluefin tunas are among the ocean’s most fabulous fish. Sleek and strong, they cross oceans in mere weeks, warm their bodies by capturing their metabolic heat, and live for decades. They’re also prized commodities, especially as sushi in restaurants around the world. Given bluefin’s high cultural and economic value, overfishing has driven some populations of these prized ocean predators into steep decline.
How to rebuild bluefin populations remains a critical question — one science can help us answer.
Researchers and fisheries managers around the world are working to protect and recover bluefin tuna populations. But conservation efforts must be informed by basic science: When do bluefin mature? Where do they travel in the ocean? When do they stop to eat?
In 1993, Barbara was recruited to Stanford from the University of Chicago. During the visit, she and Chuck hatched a plan to join forces and build a tuna facility at Stanford: the Tuna Research and Conservation Center (TRCC). They hoped to jointly accomplish two missions: to help the Aquarium exhibit tunas, and to start a research facility specializing in the biology of these Olympic-caliber athletes.
The science of “fish and chips”
For more than 20 years, the TRCC team has focused on big-picture tuna challenges. First up was learning how to keep yellowfin and bluefin tunas in captivity — research that eventually enabled the Aquarium to display the sleek predators in the Open Sea exhibit.
In 1996, the TRCC team began asking where tunas go in the wild. Barbara had worked with the father of tuna biology, Dr. Frank Carey (to whom the TRCC lab is dedicated), to track tunas with telemetry. Using tracking technology, the team has explored questions of where tunas travel in the ocean and how their bodies handle the extreme conditions they face on their migrations — between continents, from subtropical to temperate waters, and to depths of more than 6,000 feet. Their findings are helping inform conservation practices that could help bluefin tuna populations recover in years to come.
The TRCC team’s research has been especially challenging and transformative for one reason: It’s difficult to understand where animals go, and what they do, when they’re underwater and far from shore.
“Most of us from [a] ship — even I — look out at the ocean and see a homogeneous sea,” Barbara explained during a 2010 TED talk. “We don’t know where the structure is. We can’t tell where the watering holes are, like we can on an African plain.”
Using the “fish and chips” strategy, TRCC scientists have uncovered critical information about where tunas travel. In the early 2000s, they documented tunas making transoceanic journeys. Some of the bluefin born in Japan travel to the California coast, and some born in the Gulf of Mexico travel to the European coast. The discovery of these fishes’ highly migratory behavior has greatly improved our understanding of all three bluefin species, and informs international negotiations on conserving bluefin tuna populations.
Warm-blooded but cold-hearted
Other studies have uncovered where bluefin tunas eat and where they spawn — two crucial bits of information when it comes to protecting them and essential tuna habitats. A recent paper in the journal Science Advances identified key bluefin tuna feeding locations in the Pacific, and determined they prefer searching for food in specific conditions.
“They tend to select a certain temperature range to live in,” Chuck explains. “They also have the ability to dive and explore in very warm or very cold water, for short periods of time.”
In collaboration with tuna researchers in Japan, Chuck and the TRCC have been working in the Sea of Japan to find out where Pacific bluefin spawn, and what habitat the young fish utilize as they develop. Their work should be published later this year.
The TRCC team is making important discoveries about bluefin physiology, too. Unlike most fishes, tuna are warm-blooded, or “endothermic,” meaning they can heat their bodies above the temperature of the surrounding ocean. But not every body part gets warmed equally. Bluefin maintain heat in their eyes, brain, swimming muscles and guts. But their hearts are cold, experiencing temperature drops of tens of degrees Celsius during deep dives. How do tuna manage to keep their hearts pumping at temperatures that would stop a human heart?
In 2015, Barbara and colleagues published a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B that answered this question. They found that adrenaline was the secret. Cold temperatures trigger an adrenaline rush, which helps maintain the level of calcium in tuna hearts. Without calcium, the heart would not be able to beat normally at extremely cold temperatures.
In May, Barbara will receive the 2016 Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in Science. The award is just one of several she has earned over the past two decades — including a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” — but her tireless work is far from finished. There are still hundreds of questions to be answered, more bluefin to track, and populations to preserve.
A chance to inspire change
By tagging bluefin tuna in the wild and learning more about their physiology in captivity, the TRCC team is producing data crucial to sustainable management. Barbara hopes that by bringing together global scientists, fishers, managers and policymakers, we can ensure that collaboration increases, transfer of knowledge improves, and the steep decline of bluefin populations in the Pacific and the western Atlantic reverses in her lifetime.
Chuck has high hopes the Bluefin Futures Symposium will bring the science to bear on management solutions. “Everyone at the Aquarium that’s involved in this has high expectations there will be positive outcomes,” he says.
No two days are the same in the life of Chuck Farwell, manager of the Aquarium’s Tuna Research and Conservation Program. Some days he’s helping the husbandry team maintain our stock of Pacific bluefin tuna. Other days he’s on a boat at sea, surgically implanting electronic tracking tags into the bellies of fish. And some days he’s in Japan, advocating for the conservation and preservation of the Pacific bluefin tuna.
Chuck has been working with tuna since the 1960s, when he first surveyed albacore tuna ranges for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. He joined the Aquarium before it opened in 1984, with a long-term vision of developing husbandry techniques to allow us to keep and maintain tuna. At the time, no aquarium outside Japan had ever kept tuna on permanent exhibit. In 1996, Monterey became the first, with displays of yellowfin and bluefin tuna.
Now, Chuck focuses on Pacific bluefin tuna, large predators that can migrate across ocean basins in a matter of weeks. They’re beautiful, lightning-fast and as majestic as they are delicious. The species is prized among seafood enthusiasts – primarily for the high-end sushi trade.
Statement of Margaret Spring, Vice President of Conservation and Science and Chief Conservation Officer, Monterey Bay Aquarium
“The Monterey Bay Aquarium is disappointed that nations at the 89th meeting of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission were unable to reach agreement on any new measures to conserve Pacific bluefin tuna populations. Pacific bluefin tuna are key top predators in the ocean, but the population’s breeding stock has been depleted to approximately 4% of historic levels. As the population continues to decline, we need all Pacific nations to collaborate and commit to a science-based, long-term recovery plan that will result in a healthy, sustainable Pacific bluefin population.
“We applaud the United States’ leadership in advancing a proposal at last week’s meeting to support new scientific analyses and collaboration across international science advisory bodies that could improve future conservation and management decisions. We strongly support the United States’ effort to include a science-based recovery target, known as maximum sustainable yield, as an indication of what measures are needed to ensure the long-term conservation and sustainable use of the species.
“Despite significant support from most Member nations, the Commission could not reach a consensus on the U.S. scientific analysis proposal, and unfortunately did not adopt any new measures.
“Now is the time for all nations fishing in the region to think beyond purely domestic concerns and commit to a Pacific-wide plan to reverse the decline of Pacific bluefin tuna in a meaningful, responsible and cooperative manner. This must start with a commitment to strictly adhere to scientific advice in establishing rebuilding targets. And it must include serious consideration of other conservation measures, such as protection for bluefin spawning areas.
“The next opportunity for action comes when the Northern Committee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meets in Japan at the end of August. We urge all parties to pledge their support for new international research investments, including electronic and emerging techniques for tagging and tracking bluefin tuna populations across the Pacific. This commitment is essential to strengthen conservation measures, and to advance a science-based, long-term rebuilding plan that will recover the species to sustainable levels.”
Bluefin tunas are among the most remarkable fishes in the ocean – apex predators that migrate across ocean basins for long distances at top speeds. Biologically, economically and culturally significant at a global scale, they have long been the target of lucrative fisheries. Today, they face a range of threats worldwide.
From January 18-20, 2016, this three-day gathering will bring together the world’s foremost bluefin science and management experts to discuss issues that will shape a sustainable future for the planet’s bluefin tuna populations, and to consider a future global vision for bluefin tunas.
The program will cover the latest scientific knowledge for all three species, current and new fisheries management tools, the economics of the bluefin tuna industry and trade, the emerging role of tuna aquaculture, and the impacts of climate change. It’s all with the goal of shaping a vision for healthy, sustainable bluefin populations.