FAO appraises tuna fisheries worldwide

A giant bluefin caught in the Central Atlantic
A giant bluefin caught in the Central Atlantic
A giant bluefin
A giant bluefin
Tuna fishing with pole-and-line in the Maldives
Tuna fishing with pole-and-line in the Maldives

Menakhem Ben-Yami takes a look at the global tuna industry.

Approximately 40 species of tuna roam all over the world's tropical, subtropical, and temperate waters, and they represent a very important source of food and employment in both developed and developing countries.

The global yields of tuna have been continually rising, exceeding 6.6m mt in 2010, an increase on 1950 yields by a factor of 11. The 2010 value of two thirds of the latter yields, consisting of the economically most important, ‘principal’ market species, was more than US$10 billion.

Landed all around the world by vessels from more than 85 countries, tuna represents about 8% of international trade in seafood products. The bulk of the catches of the principal market tuna species come from the Pacific (70.5% in 2008), with the Indian Ocean contributing more (19.5% in 2010) than both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean (10.0% in 2010) together.

In 2010, skipjack, yellowfin, bigeye and albacore yields came up to over 99% of the total tuna landings. Bluefin from both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was less than 2%. Most tropical principal market tunas have reacted well to exploitation because of their high fecundity, a relatively short life span, wide geographic distribution and opportunistic behaviour that make them highly productive. The tropical species of skipjack and yellowfin are used mostly for canning. Because of that, they fetch lower prices than the tuna used for sashimi, such as bluefin and bigeye (bigeye is a tropical species).

Stocks of temperate species (albacore and bluefin) are less productive and may be more susceptible to overexploitation. Some bluefin stocks (used for expensive sashimi) are, in fact, significantly depleted, which is a prime conservation problem. The albacore fetches much lower prices than bluefin but usually higher than skipjack and yellowfin.

Cage farmed
In addition to the directly landed wild-caught tuna, some are fattened in floating-cage farms – an industry not considered true aquaculture. It consists of capturing young tuna alive, transferring them into large, floating cages, where they're intensively fed until they arrive at the size and fat content that make them fit for high (sashimi) level marketing. This is done mainly in the Mediterranean and in Australia. Much of the above go for sashimi and/or sushi treats to the Japanese and, recently, also to the fast developing international market.

Sashimi, once an exclusively Japanese delicacy, has become popular globally, wherever rich consumers abound. The species of tuna commonly found at the sushi bar are bluefin, yellowfin, bigeye and albacore, although, in Japan, also skipjack is now used. The prices of top-quality sea-caught tuna have reached extravagant levels, with some bluefin giants, which fetched prices of 2,000US$/kg and over, sold for sums sufficient to pay for several Jaguar cars. On the other hand, in general, the price of skipjack and yellowfin used in the canning industry remains low enough. Thus, the management of these and some other ‘normally’ priced tuna should be regarded separately from those of the extravagantly priced and, thus, overfished ones.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO) has recently published an appraisal of the state and performance of the world fisheries of tuna and tuna-like species in the 2010. Edited by Fabio Carocci and Jacek Majkowski, it can be downloaded here.

According to FAO, the main tuna stocks are currently more or less fully exploited, some are overexploited and very few are under-exploited, so that maintaining tuna stocks at sustainable levels requires improving and strengthening their management. This would, in turn, need international cooperation and, at the national level, better fishery monitoring and management. To developing countries FAO proposes innovative monitoring systems and capacity development for fisheries research and management.

On regional scales, tuna fishing countries are collaborating in the management of tuna fisheries and capture-based farming. Tuna fisheries management is executed within the frameworks of five tuna Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (t-RFMOs). Since 2008, FAO has been providing and/or facilitating technical input to the global joint meetings of t-RFMOs, taking place every second year. Many of the problems involved are common across different, however distant, regions. Hence, the need for global approach and cooperation, including, research and data collection, as well as processing, storage, distribution and marketing, and any related development.

One outcome of such cooperation is the UN Fish Stocks agreement. The Agreement and the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries set new standards for tuna fisheries management, technology, research and data requirements. To maintain global multidisciplinary co-operation and information exchange, every two years FAO organises a joint meeting of all RFMOs (including the tuna ones) with the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI).

Over the years, FAO has formulated and implemented various global, regional and national projects and facilitated, often externally funded, meetings in support of the management of tuna fisheries and capture-based aquaculture. On the global scale, they have included:

  1. Projects on ‘Cooperative Research on Interactions of Tuna Fisheries Interactions’ and ‘Management of Tuna Fishing Capacity: Conservation and Socio-economics’
  2. The Expert Consultation on ‘Implications of the Precautionary Approach for Tuna Biological and Technological Research’

An FAO led five-year programme on ‘Global Sustainable Fisheries Management and Biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ)’ is developing, in consultation with fishing countries, the t-RFMOs, inter-governmental organisations, NGOs, and the tuna fishing industry, a project to improve sustainable management of tuna fisheries and promote biodiversity conservation.


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