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First Step to Reducing the Capacity to Catch Tuna

Posted by Bill Fox & Dale Squires
28 June 2012

Guest blogger Bill Fox is Vice President of Fisheries for the World Wildlife Fund and serves as Vice Chair of the ISSF Board of Directors. His co-author, Dale Squires, is a member of the ISSF Scientific Advisory Committee. Squires is a senior scientist and economist for the National Marine Fisheries Service* and is an Adjunct Professor of Economics at the University of California San Diego.

Excessive growth in fishing capacity is one of the most significant causes of overfishing and the ultimate depletion of fish stocks. This happens eventually in every open access fishery due to the simple dynamics described in Garrett Hardin’s treatise Tragedy of the Commons.[1] But even worse, excess fishing capacity is the major block to reducing overfishing and recovering depleted stocks.

In the case of tuna, large-scale purse seine vessels are responsible for at least 65% of the world’s tuna catch. But they have the capacity to catch a lot more. The full annual capacity of these vessels is around 4 million tons. That’s nearly the same amount of tuna harvested in a given year by all vessels, utilizing all fishing gears, combined. Right now, there are very few national or international measures that limit new tuna purse seine vessel construction.

In a recent peer-reviewed study of fishing capacity for tuna, Aranda et al (2012)[2] concluded that, “Overcapacity is a major threat to the sustainability of tuna resources.” And while Regional Fishery Management Organizations (RFMOs) have begun to address the problem, management measures have not led to a reduction. For example, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) has a purse seine capacity target of 158,000 cubic meters and a resolution aimed at controlling capacity but the current level is near 220,000 cubic meters with some member states clamoring for even more.

The first step to reducing excess capacity – no matter how it’s done – is to limit capacity, preventing additional vessels from entering already over-crowded fisheries. The Bellagio Framework, created with the input of world experts, highlights the necessity of capping the current number of vessels and discouraging the addition of new ones. The report noted, “Urgent action is required. Simply put, the global growth in fishing capacity must be curtailed and fleets reduced. The time is ripe to address these problems and their root causes.”

In the Resolution by ISSF to Limit the Growth in Fishing Capacity of the Global Large-Scale Tropical Tuna Purse Seine Fleet, industry is urged to support only those vessels that are on the water by the end of this year unless they are replacing existing capacity that is taken completely out of service (there’s an exception for vessels that have been contracted to be built by the same deadline). It’s not a perfect measure, as those who oppose this necessary step in achieving tuna sustainability are sure to point out, but it’s a great step in the right direction and certainly far more than any other organization – governmental or non-governmental – has been able to achieve for the global tuna fishery.

This measure guarantees that companies with at least 75% of the world’s tuna processing capacity will significantly reduce the demand for incremental, new vessels by simply refusing to buy tuna caught by them. That means far less of an incentive to build new large-scale purse seiners without retiring existing ones, keeping in mind that these vessels are huge investments, costing tens of millions of dollars. That would be a lot of money to risk knowing the potential market has shrunk by at least 75%.

Limiting demand is something industry can, and should, do. But this action alone will not solve overcapacity issues in one clean sweep. In 2003, our late colleague, Dr. James Joseph, wrote of the “need to address the issues related to common property resources and property-rights based management, the allocation of catches and fleet capacities among participants, the rights of access on the high seas, the authority for regional tuna organizations to deal with some of these matters.”[3]

That is precisely what needs to happen next. Once capacity is limited, nations must work toward fairly allocating rights to existing capacity. Now that the progressive members of the tuna industry are clearly committed to leading the way in the right direction, it’s time for governments to do their part.

*The views expressed in this blog do not represent the official views or policies of the National Marine Fisheries Service.


[1] Hardin, Garrett. 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin. Science Vol. 162 no. 3859 pp. 1243-1248.

[2] Aranda, M., H. Murua and P. De Bruyn. 2012. Managing fishing capacity in tuna regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs): Development and state of the art. Marine Policy 36: 985–992

[3] Joseph,J. Managing fishing capacity of the world tuna fleet. FAO Fisheries Circular. No. 982. Rome, FAO. 2003. 67p.



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