Bluefin Futures Symposium Advances Global Cooperation Toward Tuna Conservation

Feb 11, 2016

From Jan. 18-20, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University convened many of the world’s leading bluefin tuna researchers, policymakers and stakeholders for the Bluefin Futures Symposium in Monterey, California. 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, industry and NGOs—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 managers and scientists can work together to further improve scientific models, recovery efforts and fisheries outcomes. Day three focused on current and future challenges and opportunities, including breakthroughs in bluefin aquaculture, the economics of the bluefin trade, and the potential impacts of climate change on bluefin populations.

Here are some of the big questions tackled at the symposium. We’ll use these as a springboard for further discussion and problem-solving in the months ahead.

  1. How can we overcome governance challenges?

The Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) responsible for managing bluefin tunas around the world have had mixed results in their attempts to end overfishing and recover populations to sustainable levels. Several speakers identified governance challenges as key limitations to recovery efforts, and called for stronger international collaboration amongst all parties. Despite the governance challenges, a number of speakers and participants stated that the RFMOs provide the best mechanism to achieve sustainable bluefin management. 

Keynote speakers Maria Damanaki and Glenn Hurry outlined several potential steps to strengthen the RFMO process and build the trust needed to advance recovery efforts. Among their suggestions: more direct engagement with industry and NGO stakeholders, and stronger adherence to scientific advice. Recent improvements for southern bluefin and populations of Atlantic bluefin illustrate that progress is possible through the RFMOs, and it is up to all symposium participants to clearly identify the steps necessary to ensure a sustainable future for these iconic species.

  1. What are the key science gaps, and what research should be prioritized?

Our understanding of bluefin tunas has come a long way over the course of the last few decades, and includes a variety of new and emerging research technologies. However, there are critical gaps in our basic understanding of these powerful predators, including aspects of their biology, migrations and life history. Knowledge gaps affect our ability to accurately estimate bluefin tuna populations, design management plans and measure their effectiveness.

Symposium participants, including some of the world’s leading bluefin tuna scientists, discussed a number of difficult questions: How important is it to know a bluefin tuna’s age at reproduction, or how the populations are structured? Can we maximize research with the information that is currently available, and account for the different scientific approaches and results? What is the best way to ensure that research will improve models and management? These debates allowed participants from a wide variety of scientific backgrounds to provide perspectives on research investment priorities for each bluefin species.

  1. Can new ideas, technology and players improve scientific knowledge?

Monterey Bay Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard noted in her opening remarks that well-managed fisheries have a common ingredient: good scientific data. Presentations at the symposium illustrated the growing number of innovative ideas and techniques that may significantly improve our understanding of bluefin tunas.

Technological advances — from electronic tracking tags to genetic markers, gene tagging and next-generation computer modeling — are giving scientists new tools to monitor bluefin populations. Additional interdisciplinary science and technology collaborations may expand our understanding even further.  Emerging aquaculture techniques and feeds, mapping and sensor technology, as well as dynamic spatial models and climate change prediction capability, may significantly enhance our ability to predict future trends.  A number of participants suggested that the scientific research should leverage these advances to better inform bluefin tuna management.

  1. How will emerging tools enhance science-based decision-making?

Decisions like how many fish can be caught, and when and where to allow harvests, should be rooted in the best available science. However, management can fall short if decisions focus on short-term, rather than long-term, outcomes.

A number of science-based management tools have been developed to improve science-based decision-making, and several speakers advocated for a method called “management strategy evaluation.”  This process incorporates the best available science, allowing bluefin fishery managers to choose among alternative strategies to achieve important long-term outcomes, like ending overfishing and rebuilding populations.

As we heard during the discussion, the ultimate success of management strategy evaluation depends on several science-based elements, such as robust catch data, accurate stock assessments and setting appropriate reference points. Additional participation from a wide range of scientific experts and stakeholders is likely to result in outcomes that strike an appropriate balance between economic interests and long-term sustainability.

  1. How can we make bluefin tuna science and management decisions more inclusive and effective?

Participants proposed a number of different ways to overcome communication barriers between scientists and managers, such as making scientific data, methodologies and reports available to the public more quickly, and encouraging underrepresented parties (developing nations, industry, non-government organizations and academia) to attend international meetings and discussions.

Spring called for more transparency, data-sharing and cross-sector coordination. “There is a pressing need for scientists and fishery managers to communicate better with each other – and hear from new voices,” she said. “It’s clear we would benefit by breaking down silos across science, policy, industry and advocacy.”

By the end of the symposium, participants were talking about how valuable the discussion in Monterey had been — and encouraging plans for a second Bluefin Futures Symposium.

The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries issued a statement welcoming “the ‘open and constructive discussions’ that took place in Monterey.”

Three days of conversation “revealed how different scientific approaches can deliver towards sustainability and confirmed the crucial role of cooperation among the various stakeholders to reach conservation objectives,” the statement said.

Spring hopes the talks will jump-start a new era of collaboration between scientists and decision-makers. “We don’t yet have a clear strategy for recovery for all bluefin tunas—but we could,” she says. “It is critical to keep the dialog going.”

Learn more about the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s work with bluefin tunas.



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The mission of the nonprofit Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the ocean.