The Tuna Billions / by Francisco Blaha

Taken together, the seven most commercially important tuna species are among the most economically valuable fishes on the planet. In 2014, the volume of landed tuna rose to 4.99 million metric tons with an estimated dock value of $9.8 billion. The estimated end value remained similar to that in 2012 due to falling fish prices and was $32.9 billion, or $42.2 billion when including the full canned product price.

These are some of the conclusions of a report commissioned by Pew Trust to my colleagues Graeme Macfadyen and Vincent Defaux (see and downloaded it from here as it is a very good reference)

While the overall numbers do not reflect the total worth of the seven species, they provide a useful estimate of the contribution made by commercial tuna fisheries to the global economy. A total value of tuna, incorporating sport fishing and in-the-water ecosystem benefits of living tunas, among other things, would be much higher. Therefore, these numbers should be considered conservative.

The methodology used to calculate these global estimates allows for values to be broken down by region, species, and fishing gear.

The Pacific Ocean supports the world’s largest tuna fisheries. Nearly three-quarters of tuna landings in 2012 and 2014 came from these waters, and sales of tuna from the Pacific made up two-thirds of the global dock value and end value in both years.

Commercially landed Pacific tuna generated dock values of more than $6.5 billion in 2012 and $5 billion in 2014. The end value of Pacific tuna surpassed $17 billion in both years. When accounting for the full price of canned tuna, these values were more than $22 billion (in nominal dollars) in both years. Unfortunately, only a pitiful % of that stays in the hands of the Pacific Island Countries.

Indian Ocean tuna fisheries run a distant second, followed by the Atlantic and Southern oceans. The Southern Ocean’s small piece of the global pie is a result of fisheries targeting only southern bluefin. Still, the end value of Southern Ocean tuna is significant (about $500 million).

Based on data reported to the world’s regional fisheries management bodies, the top tuna-fishing nation is Indonesia, with total landings in 2014 of more than 620,000 metric tons. Indonesia’s vessels fish mainly in the eastern Indian and western Pacific oceans, in contrast to several other major fishing nations that support large global fleets.

Most of these nations have diverse fleets, with boats that fish using all gear types and target all species. Six of the top 10—Japan; Taiwan, Province of China; the United States; Korea; Spain; and France—have large global fleets that can fish far from their home waters. The Asian and European fleets, in particular, fish all major ocean basins and land tuna at ports around the world.

The remaining top nations have very large local or regional fleets that fish in the highly productive eastern tropical Pacific (Ecuador) or western and central tropical Pacific (the Philippines and Papua New Guinea).

The large majority of tuna landed worldwide is taken by purse seine fishing vessels, which use very large nets to encircle entire schools of fish. Purse seiners target primarily skipjack and yellowfin, and most tuna caught this way is destined for canneries. Because of the large volumes of these two species captured by purse seine, this gear type accounts for more revenue than any other.

In 2012 and 2014, a relatively small number of large purse seine vessels caught approximately two-thirds of all landed tuna. That accounted for about half of the dock value and end value of all tuna fisheries.

This report represents the first attempt to develop a rigorous estimate of the global value of tuna fisheries. Because this analysis is based solely on available commercial data, the value of the world’s tuna populations likely far exceeds the $42.2 billion estimated here. Despite being a conservative estimate, the report’s findings—that tuna fisheries contribute tens of billions of dollars to the global economy—indicate the critical importance of ensuring that all commercially fished tuna species are managed sustainably.

To conserve, and build on, the wealth that tuna fisheries generate, steps are needed to improve the precautionary management of tuna populations globally. Managers should:

  • Restore depleted tuna stocks to healthy levels, at a minimum.
  • Determine and set science-based catch limits that prevent stocks from dropping below healthy levels to ensure an adequate buffer to account for uncertainties.
  • Develop and implement a system of pre-agreed management actions that would be triggered when stock sizes drop below predetermined healthy levels; these actions should be designed to reverse trends toward excessive stock depletion.

With these three actions, fisheries managers can work to remove the short-term politics from decision-making. Doing that would secure strong financial returns in tuna fisheries while ensuring the health of marine ecosystems.