Counting Fish (VIDEO)


NOTE: This is a guest post from†Lee Crockett, Director of†Federal Fisheries Policy at the Pew Environment Group.

This post is part of Pewís Overfishing 101 series. Previous posts can be viewed here.

How heavy is 35,000 metric tons? For starters, itís the weight of 193 jumbo jets or 2,917 African elephants. Itís also the amount of Atlantic bluefin tuna that have exceeded the official catch quota in the Mediterranean Sea in the past two years alone, according to a Pew-commissioned†analysis of the international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna released today.

Exceeding quotas

Mind the Gap analysis coverAs Iíve written before,†illegal and unreported fishing is a real and ongoing problem in the Mediterranean bluefin fishery. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the body that manages bluefin tuna in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, sets an annual fishing limit, but there is clear evidence that these quotas have been surpassed in recent years, often by a large margin. In 2007, ICCATís scientists indicated that the number of fish caught that year might have been double the official limits. In an effort to combat overfishing of the species, in 2008 ICCAT reduced the quota and put in place improved compliance measures, such as a paper-based catch documentation system, meant to track bluefin tuna from sea to plate.

But because of a complicated supply chain that can stretch halfway around the world, and the fact that tuna can change hands many times before it becomes someoneís meal, it is very difficult to quantify the amount of bluefin traded each year. Thatís why the Pew Environment Group commissioned Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi, a bluefin tuna trade expert, to sort through years of import and export documents from countries around the world to provide a clearer picture of the true scope of the trade in Mediterranean bluefin tuna. We were especially interested in years 2009 and 2010 so that we could learn whether new ICCAT compliance measures have been effective.

A growing problem

Although total catches and trade have been decreasing since 2008, and improved compliance measures have been put in place, the report found a striking difference between the quota and the amount traded on the global market. Specifically, the report showed that:

  • In 2008, the number of bluefin traded around the world exceeded the quota by 31 percent.
  • By 2010, that percentage had grown to an astonishing 141 percent.
  • The combined trade for 2009 and 2010 was double the quotas set by ICCAT (70,646 metric tons and 35,306 metric tons, respectively).

The problem of unreported fishing of Mediterranean bluefin tuna continues.

There are several reasons why we should care about this problem. For starters, it directly affects the conservation status of Atlantic bluefin, a species whose numbers are already at near-historic lows. When the catch is double the official limits, the future of the population is jeopardized. Unreported fishing also affects the accuracy of the stock assessments (a scientific method of determining the amount or number of fish) used to set future quotas.

Illegal and unreported bluefin are often not included in the official catch data used in these assessments, which leads to overly optimistic evaluations of the health of the population. Using ICCATís 2010 stock assessment for bluefin tuna, if the actual fishing level continues to be twice the quota, as indicated by this analysis, there is a less than a 24 percent chance that the Mediterranean bluefin population will rebuild by 2022.

According to Bregazzi, many of the problems of underreporting and misreporting of catches originate in Mediterranean tuna ranches, floating sea pens where juvenile bluefin are fattened before being killed and sold on the world market. The young fish are caught and transferred to the ranches, where there is often a discrepancy between the amount of fish reported in the ranches, compared to the amount that comes out.

Fortunately, there are several steps that ICCAT member countries can take to address these problems. In previous posts, Iíve mentioned how an†electronic bluefin catch documentation (eBCD) system could better count and track the number of bluefin caught each year, as well as provide information that could improve enforcement and science. An eBCD system would be particularly helpful to officials in the Mediterranean charged with monitoring the amount of bluefin tuna coming out of ranches.

Technology, such as stereoscopic video, can also help get a more accurate count of the number of fish transferred from vessel to ranch. In addition, countries have the ability to increase their enforcement efforts at the dock by dialing up inspections and turning away vessels that have been fishing illegally.

Letís hope ICCAT member governments take a real leadership role and help protect one of the most fascinating and sought after fish in the sea.


Read the rest of the Overfishing 101 series:

Getting Serious About Illegal Tuna Fishing in the Mediterranean

Protecting Tuna With Technology

Creative Ways to Protect Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (VIDEO)

Overfishing: It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

New Englandís First Year of Fishing Under Sectors

Why Rebuilding Fish Populations Benefits Everyone

A Big Fish Story We Should Take Seriously (Video)

How Science Helps Managers End Overfishing and Rebuild Depleted Fish Populations

A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding U.S. Fishery Management

How Ocean Fish Populations are Managed in the U.S.

How Ocean Fish Populations are Managed in the U.S. (Part 2)

The Importance of Rebuilding Our Fish Populations Without Delay

Why Ending Overfishing Pays Off in the Long Run

Why Ending Overfishing is Good for Both Fish and Fishermen Alike

Photo Credit: Marco CarŤ/Marine Photobank


Nancy L.
Nancy L6 years ago

Thanks for posting.

Will Rogers
Will R6 years ago

Backyard fish farms. That's what we need!

Nicole Weber
Nicole W6 years ago

thank you

Isabel Araujo
Isabel Araujo6 years ago

Good article, thank you.

Alicia N.
Alicia N6 years ago

noted, thanks

Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y6 years ago

Boycott all tuna & mackerel, bluefin, yellowtail, and albacore - take the pressure off. Extinction looms for some species.

Ask for locally raised and sustainable fish instead in your sushi and seafood shopping.

Sorry Charlie, it's no longer cool to be Starkist.
(not that it ever was for the sea's noblest predator to be hooked, brained, butchered, minced and pressed in tiny tin cans)

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L6 years ago


Bill K.
Bill K6 years ago

people need to start hurting the fishing industry where it hurts them the most - at local seafood markets and restaurants.

Karen and Ed O.
Karen and Ed O6 years ago

From Sea Shepherd Campaign, Blue Rage:

"In March 2010, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) refused to list bluefin tuna as an endangered species due to pressure from Japan, China, and Libya. When a fish reaches the average price of $75,000 USD, banning its trade can upset many people, and apparently the controversy was too much to take for the CITES. After exhibiting this blatant lack of will to protect the lucrative fish by, at least temporarily, banning its international trade, all eyes turned to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), as the bluefin’s last resort"

Greenpeace says it is working with these governments to reach an agreement on exploiting the seas. Yeah, Greenpeace, that looks like it's working real well.

Please support Sea Shepherd in its campaign to save the oceans creatures. They are stretched thin and need all the help they can get to save our oceans.

Penny C.
penny C6 years ago

Thank you for the article Alicia.We need to protect fish & many of our creatures but all government is interested in is big bucks:(