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Should We Stop Eating Yellowfin Tuna?

Dozens of coastal economies and tens of thousands of workers depend on the tuna trade. So any time someone asks “should we stop eating tuna?” the answer has far-reaching implications. Lately the question has been asked about yellowfin, after some campaigners continue to urge consumers, retailers and processors to stop buying and selling the species. We all know it’s impossible to make blanket recommendations by species, as each has different stocks, but many still ask – is there any reason to stop fishing yellowfin? The better question is – what does the science tell us about the health of yellowfin stocks?

Now is the perfect time to pull together answers to those questions. Our Scientific Advisory Committee just released the latest update to ISSF’s Status of the World Fisheries for Tuna report. It’s a compilation of the most current science available on the state of the 23 commercially fished tuna stocks, including yellowfin.

Here’s the background, according to the Status report:

• Yellowfin (Thunnus albacares) are found in the subtropical and tropical areas of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans;
• Yellowfin form both free and associated schools with adults generally forming schools of similarly sized individuals, free-swimming schools tend to contain large individuals and are mono-specific and in the eastern Pacific, schools are often associated with dolphin pods, an association not common elsewhere;
• Yellowfin tuna reach intermediate sizes between albacore and bigeye with individuals as large as 150 cm are common in some fisheries.

Yellowfin is the second most commonly fished species of tuna – behind only skipjack – supplying 25% of the world’s total tuna catch, or roughly 1,085,000 tons. A majority of it is brought in by purse seine fishing vessels, as you can see in the chart to the right, and most of that purse seine catch is not associated with FADs. This is important because purse seine fishing has a much lower by-catch rate than other gears, like gillnet and longline fishing.

Of the 4 stocks of yellowfin tuna, only one is overfished. That’s the Atlantic Ocean stock, which makes up just 9% of the global yellowfin catch. That means 91% of the yellowfin available on the market comes from stocks that are at a healthy level of abundance and are not being overfished. Again, you can get more detailed information in the Status of the World Fisheries for Tuna report.

It doesn’t take much digging to uncover the state of yellowfin tuna stocks. Current catch rates can continue without jeopardizing the catch for future generations. That said, stocks likely cannot sustain any great increases in catch. So strong management is needed to ensure that overfishing doesn’t creep up on otherwise healthy stocks. Reference points and harvest control rules could take care of that.