Seize This Moment for Bluefin Tuna

01/27/2013 08:20 pm ET | Updated Mar 29, 2013

The latest population assessment for Pacific bluefin tuna, released earlier this week, concluded that only 3.6 percent remain after decades of overfishing. Pacific bluefin is the same specie of fish that set the world record at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo on Saturday, January 5, when a 489-pound animal sold for $1.76 million.

Often thought of as the most valuable fish in the sea, the bluefin tuna is also one of the most important fish in the sea -- but not for its market value. Capable of crossing oceans, growing in excess of 500 pounds (with the giant northern bluefin of the Atlantic topping three times that weight), and able to swim at speeds in excess of 50 mph, they are among the ocean's top predators and a marvel of evolution.

They also play a critical role in structuring the ecosystems in which they dominate. Recent science estimating the value of ecosystems -- not merely for the raw material they give us but also for the services they provide (such as pollination, water purification, etc.) -- has found that the real value of ecosystems is not in what we extract from them, but in what we derive from them as "services" year in and year out. These ecosystem services include myriad stabilizing and enriching effects that depend on biodiversity. In the case of the bluefin tuna, their value as apex predators in stabilizing populations of forage fish like herring, mackerel and menhaden is only one of several key roles they play in their ocean environments. In short, populations of these and other creatures are more valuable when left robust rather than converted to cash and food through overharvesting. This does not preclude harvesting, but it means that for the greatest long-term economic benefit and security for all, the harvest should be tightly controlled.

For the bluefin tuna, the story is the same for all three major stocks on the planet (northern, Pacific, and southern): breeding populations hover in the vicinity of 3-6 percent of their historical maximums. According to a recent Pew Environment Group announcement, Pacific bluefin are captured at every stage of their life cycle, with 90 percent being taken as juveniles before they've had a chance to breed. While there are basic catch restrictions in the eastern Pacific off the Americas, there are no such restrictions in the western Pacific where bluefin continue to be fished heavily in their only known spawning and nursery habitats. Nowhere on the planet are bluefin tuna well enough protected to guarantee their survival.

Now is the time to push for the kinds of science-based management reforms -- as well as committed enforcement -- that only recently, after more than a dozen years of battle, have begun to show the slightest gains for bluefin in the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean. It's in the interest of every party involved -- conservationists, consumers, sportfishers, fishermen; even bluefin ranch operators and most certainly governments -- to support the strictest possible management and enforcement regimes to rebuild robust, wild populations. Only by rebuilding wild populations can all parties be guaranteed a future in which we derive the benefits of bluefin tuna as food and as a vital linchpin in healthy, productive oceans. The endgame of wiping out bluefin in the name of profit or in the belief that farm-raised bluefin will supply the world when wild stocks are gone are both short-sighted perspectives. In the long-term, bluefin tuna will better serve the oceans and our needs if they continue as rulers of their domain.

It's clear what this will take not merely the creation of and commitment to such a plan, but a more profound shift in how we think of, manage and protect entire ecosystems. This month's bluefin headlines make clear that there is no time like the present to confront what W. Jeffrey Bolster, author of The Mortal Sea, calls "the magnitude of the restoration challenges we face."

Those of us familiar with the depleted waters of New England -- once among the most fecund on Earth and which include the summer range of the largest bluefin tunas on the planet -- know all too well the cost of the belief that the sea will endlessly supply our needs no matter what we do to it. Rather than relegating the bluefin tuna to the legions of the extinct and making them a permanent icon, with all the others, of our moral failure as a species, let us act now to make bluefin the symbol of a new understanding of what their true value is -- to the oceans and to us.