Case studies

Management and conservation of Bluefin Tuna

Client: International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)

Consultants: Professor John Mumford, Dr Adrian Leach, Dr Polina Levontin and Dr John Holt, Centre for Environmental Policy (CEP)

Expertise: Risk relating to natural resource management

Our consultants shared their expertise in risk modelling to help the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) improve their plans for Bluefin Tuna harvesting and conservation.

The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna is the largest of the tuna species, key to maintaining a balance in marine ecosystems as a top predator. Since the 1970s, the demand for its meat has risen rapidly, particularly driven by the sushi industry. This has led to the development of many sophisticated fishing techniques and there are now numerous commercial operations taking advantage of soaring market prices that can reach tens of thousands of dollars per fish. As a result, world stocks drastically declined to crticially low levels due to over and illegal fishing. Recently, there have been signs of stock recovery.


The Challenge

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) wanted to improve the processes of setting fishing quotas as part of its ongoing programme to rebuild Atlantic Bluefin Tuna stocks. They approached Professor John Mumford, Dr Adrian Leach, Dr John Holt and Dr Polina Levontin from Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy (CEP) for advice on how to ensure that their stock assessment models accounted for important sources of uncertainty, such as variability in tuna migration patterns, natural mortality and factors relating to the perceptions and values of scientists, fishers and other stakeholders.

We approached the CEP team following an initial research project collaboration, funded by the EU FP6 framework. Engaging their expertise via consultancy through ICON has allowed us to expand our capabilities to analyse ecological and harvesting uncertainties.

Dr Laurie Kell
International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)


The Solution

The Imperial team identified sources of uncertainty through an initial literature review and analysis of the ICCAT stock assessment model parameters. They then developed a questionnaire where key stakeholders were asked to score 33 risk-related variables in terms of potential impact on management goals, the general level of knowledge about each individual variable and the degree to which it was represented in the current stock assessment models and advice. This information has allowed ICCAT to prioritise uncertainties, and to select variables for the next stage of quantification of risks. This could be used, along with estimates of the cost and likelihood of achieving more certainty, to decide on further research and management directions.

We were delighted that this consultancy work emerged from our earlier research project with ICCAT staff. By acknowledging the opinions of key stakeholders to address the diverse uncertainties surrounding Bluefin Tuna management, we were able to deliver outcomes to help ICCAT work towards a consistent assessment model that provides a more effective interpretation of uncertainty.

Professor John Mumford
Centre for Environmental Policy (CEP)


The Impact

The Imperial team and ICCAT are now discussing how to implement the findings within the quota setting process. The outcomes of this project are expected to have an impact on Bluefin Tuna conservation and harvesting in the coming years.

The project has also informed two of Professor Mumford’s research projects funded by the European Commission FP7 framework.

The approach and the tools developed during this consultancy can be adapted to any context where scientific advice is expected to guide management decisions regarding complex, dynamic and poorly understood systems, of which fisheries is just one example. Eliciting and prioritising sources of uncertainty is essential where scientists are asked to help with decisions that carry significant implications of economic and ecological risk. The limitations of the scientific process need to be widely communicable. The team’s expertise in eliciting, visualising and representing uncertainty to various audiences has many potential applications beyond ICCAT.


Aside from the positives in the move towards sustainable harvesting of tuna, the project is an excellent example of how we can apply some of the techniques that we teach our students. We use it in our teaching to give them some real-world context.

Dr Adrian Leach
Centre for Environmental Policy (CEP)

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