Bluefin Tuna in Europe

Stock preservation, fisheries, fattening, and market developments

Bluefin tuna (BFT) is a species with high market value. Intensified fishing pressure has led to a drastic population reduction in every ocean habitat, and in 2006 the stock was on the brink of extinction. From 2008 to 2010, the member states of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) agreed on a rebuilding plan for the BFT stock. Based on the latest available stock data, their efforts have had a positive effect on the BFT stock. ICCAT scientists assess that the spawning biomass is on the rise, permitting a rise in catch quotas. As a result, in 2014 ICCAT decided to increase the BFT total allowable catch (TAC) in the eastern Atlantic and in the Mediterranean annually by 20% for the next three years. In 2017 a progressive increase of the TAC to 36.000 tonnes until 2020 was recommended by ICCAT.

The fishing season for large vessels (mainly purse seiners) is short, between late May to late June. For other vessels, the fishing season lasts longer. Even though several different types of fishing gears are used in the BFT fisheries, the main volumes are caught by purse seiners, followed by longline and traps. Tunas caught by purse seines are usually transferred to cages at sea for fattening before being sold. Total BFT fattening capacity in the EU exceeds 50.000 tonnes. A huge effort has been made to achieve commercial full-cycle tuna farming in the Mediterranean, but the main hurdle seems to be the hatching stage with the need for increasing survival rate and improving juvenile quality.  

In the most recent years, an increasing share of EU production of BFT (catches + fattening) has been sold in the EU market. This trend can be explained, among other, by increased demand from the EU market as sushi has rapidly increased in popularity. The difference in market prices paid by Japanese buyers and buyers in the EU market has narrowed over the last years, which in turn has stimulated increased focus on the EU market.

Most of the BFT sales goes to the HoReCa segment, meaning sales were heavily impacted by the March 2020 lockdown. The market price for fresh BFT in Spain (one of the largest markets for BFT in the EU) dropped sharply from a pre-pandemic level of around 28 EUR/kg to below 19 EUR/kg. As demand for BFT all but vanished, a steep drop in sales volumes was observed. Throughout the summer of 2020 the demand for BFT gradually improved. In the last quarter of 2020, prices were back to a pre-COVID-19 level and the sales volumes at wholesale level were significantly higher than in 2019. The improvement in market conditions in the fourth quarter is linked to the slight easing of pandemic restrictions and the new sales channels developed for BFT.

The current market situation for BFT seems balanced as the supply of fresh BFT in the beginning of the year is sourced solely from fattening operations. The BFT sector will most likely benefit from easing of pandemic restrictions and more people eating out of home. However, it remains to be seen whether restrictions are lifted before the various BFT fisheries open.

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Image from shutterstock by Guido Montaldo