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The world tuna industry - an analysis of imports and prices, and of their combined impact on catches and tuna fishing capacity

Camillo Catarci
Fish Utilisation and Marketing Service (FIIU)
FAO Fisheries Department
Viale delle Terme di Caracalla
00100 Rome, Italy


Tunas are among the most important fish commodities in the world. The global catches of commercial tuna species increased from 402 000 tonnes in 1976 to 3.7 million tonnes in 2001. World imports of fresh, chilled and frozen tuna increased from 435 000 tonnes in 1976 to 1.5 million tonnes in 2001, and imports of canned tuna (net weight) increased from 89 000 tonnes in 1976 to 836 000 tonnes in 2001.

The ultimate aim of this paper is to demonstrate the relationship between the tuna market (sashimi and raw material/canned tuna) and tuna catches by utilizing a practical "bottom-up" approach. The results of the paper will be used in the estimation of tuna fishing capacity, and hence for the estimation of the optimum fishing capacity to achieve proper management of the tuna fisheries, taking into account biological, economic and social considerations.

The analysis of the sashimi market focus on Atlantic, Pacific and southern bluefin, and on bigeye, the four species which best represent this market. According to the paper, the decline of prices of bluefins and bigeye as from early to mid-nineties was generated by the changing economic conditions in Japan and increased demand of cheaper bluefins from farming and of cheaper bigeye.

Buoyant international demand for canned tuna generated an increase in catches and imports of raw material from 1992 to 1998. However, as the increase in catches was not sufficient to meet demand, prices increased concurrently. When the market became oversupplied in late 1998, the positive correlation between imports, catches, production and prices broke down, and the prices started to decline. In late 1998, the abundance of resources, combined with maximised capacity inputs, generated a large increase in catches, which continued until late 2000, when the World Tuna Purse-seine Organization (WTPO) had to implement supply limitation measures to prevent the prices of skipjack from descending to unprofitable levels.

Growing demand for tuna products has been stimulating increases in the catches. At the same time, demand for tuna has been keeping prices at levels that have ensured adequate income for all stakeholders. However, in the case of some species (such as skipjack and, to a lesser extent, yellowfin in 1998-2000) continuous high exploitation has created an excess of supply, causing prices, and therefore income of operators, to decline.

In the case of other species, such as the sashimi tunas in Japan, external economic conditions affected the market by gearing it towards lower-valued tunas (including farm-raised bluefin tuna), hence generating a decline of average sashimi tuna prices.

1. Introduction

1.1 Purpose of the paper

The present paper has been prepared within the framework of the FAO-implemented project "Management of tuna fishing capacity: conservation and socio-economics" (GCP/INT/851/JPN). The ultimate aim of the project is to improve the management of tuna fisheries on a global scale, while the intermediate aims are:

The project consists of the following activities:

The intermediate aim of this paper is to analyse the tuna market and industry on a global, regional and national scale. Its ultimate aim is to assess the influence of the tuna market (e.g. prices and imports) on tuna catches, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Furthermore, the data and information provided by this paper can be used as input for evaluation of the tuna fishing capacity, and for estimation of the optimum tuna fishing capacity from environmental and socio-economic points of view.

Over time, growing demand for tuna products has been stimulating increases in the catches. At the same time, demand for tuna has been keeping prices at levels that have ensured adequate income for all stakeholders. However, in the case of some species[47], continuous high exploitation has created an excess of supply, causing prices, and therefore income of operators, to decline.

1.2 Methodology and shortcomings

The introductory section (Analysis of the factors affecting tuna catches) provides a general overview of the tuna industry and an analysis of the human and non human-induced factors affecting tuna catches.

The section Tuna industry analysis represents the core of the study. It provides a detailed analysis of the tuna-processing industry, including the processing chain, health and safety issues and the world market for tuna commodities, with a particular focus on imports and prices.

The Conclusion section demonstrates the links between tuna fishing capacity, catches, demand for tuna (imports) and prices. The ultimate aim is to provide analysts with a tool for the estimation of the optimal tuna fishing capacity, based on environmental and socio-economic factors.

The main sources utilized for the preparation of this paper were the databases FISHSTAT Plus[48] and EUROSTAT and the data and information provided by the Services of the FISH INFOnetwork (GLOBEFISH, INFOFISH, INFOPÊCHE, INFOPESCA and INFOSAMAK). Other important sources of information were national statistics (online and on CD ROM), the internet, articles in trade journals and scientific journals, books, grey literature and personal communications.

The author has strived to provide a balanced analysis of the world tuna market. The approach utilized is a "bottom-up" one, which relies on the analysis of empirical data series as a necessary pre-condition for the elaboration of a theoretical model. The shortcomings encountered in the preparation of the paper relate mainly to the availability and quality of some of the data.

Traditionally, FISHSTAT Plus, EUROSTAT and national data on international trade of fresh, frozen and canned tuna share a high degree of consistency. However, data on imports and exports of tuna loins are not consistent with the true extent of the utilization of loins by the world tuna processing industry. Moreover, data on processing capacity of tuna canneries are generally based on estimates, and historic series are unavailable. Furthermore, the quality of data collection and of reporting varies in accordance with the different countries.

The availability of historical data on the prices for some commodities, such as materials for canning (frozen skipjack, yellowfin and albacore) and canned white and light meat tuna permitted the Services of the FISH INFOnetwork and other agencies to undertake consistent analyses of price series of the world tuna market. Other products, such as sashimi-quality frozen or fresh tuna, are very complicated (due to the presence of various degrees of quality according to objective, but also subjective, criteria), so the quality and consistency of the data are often inferior to those for materials for canning.

In general, when reading this paper, it should be borne in mind that, while the trends reflect the available statistics, there is a variable degree of uncertainty in the monthly and annual data.

1.3 Principal findings of the study

The analysis contained in the study covers the period from 1989 to 2003[49], an eventful period for the world tuna industry. During this period the tuna industry was characterized by:

The market has been characterised by:

During the 1990-2003 period the sashimi tuna market was characterised by good international demand (imports) and supply (ensured by catches of large sashimi-grade fish and farm-raised fish). In spite of the strong demand for sashimi, the prices of the three species of bluefin and of bigeye for the upper-end sashimi market declined due to:

During the 1989-1998 period the demand for raw material for the canned tuna market was generally exceeded by the supply. In some quarters the tuna resources were regarded as inexhaustible, or nearly so. This period was characterized by:

This situation led to construction of new vessels, which, in turn, led to greater catches. The market could not absorb the greater catches of fish, and the prices declined between late 2000 and early to mid-2003. This decline, known as "the Bangkok bottleneck", was the result of excess fishing capacity. In late 2000 the WTPO implemented measures to restrict fishing effort in order to eliminate the oversupply of fish and increase the prices for the raw material. The prices increased in 2001, but between 2002 and 2003 the market became oversupplied again, and the prices declined, so the WTPO measures were re-introduced[50]. According to King (1987), cited by Gillett, McCoy and Itano (2002), when prices decline, the productivity and efficiency of vessel operations become more critical. A typical vessel might increase its efficiency in order to increase its catches sufficiently to compensate for the reduced prices of fish. When a large numbers of vessels do this the prices are pushed even lower. At best, this is a waste of capital. At worst, in addition to the waste of capital, overfishing of some target or non-target species of fish could occur.

2. Analysis of the factors affecting tuna catches

Tuna captures are affected by a wide variety of factors, both human and non-human induced.

Human-induced factors include:

The increase in tuna catches after World War II was propelled by the growing demand for this protein-rich food[51]. Over time, the growth of the tuna industry fostered the growth of the fleet, both in numbers of vessels and in the sizes of the individual vessels. Also, there were numerous technological developments, which increased the efficiencies of the individual vessels.

The bulk of tuna catches is taken by purse-seine vessels, longliners and pole-and-line vessels. Other fishing methods include gillnets, traps, handlines, ring nets and trolling gear. Until the mid-1950s the growth in tuna catches came mostly from pole-and-line vessels, but thereafter, up to 1964, most of the expansion in tuna catches can be attributed to increases in the numbers of longliners. Subsequently, power blocks, synthetic nets and improved equipment for freezing fish at sea greatly improved the efficiency of purse seining. After 1966, most of the growth in total catches was a consequence of the increase in the number of purse seiners and in their fishing power (Allen, 2002). It is estimated that, at present, there are nearly 600 high-seas purse seiners, with a total carrying capacity of 600 000 tonnes, which take about 60 percent of the total catch of tuna (Joseph, 2003).

Tunas are highly mobile, frequently moving between the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of different countries and areas beyond the EEZs of any country. Bilateral agreements between DWFNs and coastal states are implemented through the sale of fishing licences to vessels, such as purse seiners and longliners, registered in DWFNs. The mobility of the tunas and the vessels that fish for them make it impossible to institute regulations to conserve them unless all of the countries that have vessels participating significantly in the fishery agree to abide by whatever regulations are adopted.

Some countries, such as Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Mauritius and the Seychelles have granted licences to purse-seine vessels from members of the European Union (EU) to fish in their waters or allowed vessels to register under their flags in exchange of a financial compensation, sometimes aimed at funding research, training and management of their fishery industries (FAO/GLOBEFISH, 2000a). In the South Pacific, the Treaty on Fisheries between Governments of Certain Pacific Island States and the U.S.A. allows 50 purse-seine vessels from the United States to enter the waters of the member countries of the South Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency Convention (FFA); the agreement also includes comprehensive fisheries management related provisions (Tamate, 2000). Also, Japan has made fishing agreements granting fishing licences in the EEZs of various coastal countries, such as Morocco, the Republic of South Africa and several South Pacific islands (FAO/GLOBEFISH data bank).

The fisheries for tunas are characterized by the highly-migratory nature of the fish, including occurrence on the high seas, the high mobility of the vessels that take most of the catch, the fact that there are several types of gear, each of which takes several species of tunas and tuna-like fishes and the fact that most of the stocks of tunas are fully exploited or overexploited. This has made it necessary to establish regional fishery bodies and arrangements (RFBAs) aimed at the management of tunas in the various ocean regions. The tuna RFBAs include:

These RFBAs have the responsibility to ensure the conservation and optimum utilization of tuna resources through stock assessment and management measures. The latter include catch quotas, limitation of fishing effort, restriction on the use of fish-aggregating devices (FADs) and minimum size limits for individual fish that are caught (Allen, 2002). The actions of these bodies affect not only the catches of tuna and tuna-like species, but also international trade. For example, under the BFSD and TIS scheme, all imports and re-exports of Atlantic and Pacific bluefin, through the BFSD, and southern bluefin, through the TIS, must be certified as to origin. The export certificate must be endorsed by an authorised competent authority in the fishing and exporting countries and must include details of the shipment, e.g. name of fishing vessel, gear type, area of catch, dates, etc. The re-export certificate should include, inter alia, the re-exporting country or fishing entity and a description of the commodity to be re-exported, accompanied by the original BFSD. Further trade-restrictive actions have been taken in accordance with recommendations by ICCAT to its member countries for prohibiting imports of certain species from countries identified as undermining conservation measures.

Recently, ICCAT, IOTC and IATTC adopted positive vessel list system, through which tunas taken by vessels more than 24 metres in overall length that are not listed in the positive lists would not purchased by members of those RFBAs.

The creation of other international bodies has had an impact on the marketing of the catches of tunas and tuna-like species, as well as their conservation. On 1 December 2000, at the second World Tuna Boat Owners Meeting (now institutionalized as the World Tuna Purse-seine Organization, WTPO), a drastic reduction in skipjack fishing was adopted; vessels of all participating countries would not fish for more than 30 of the next 60 days, or would implement a reduction of 35 percent in their fishing effort. The aim was to reduce the supply of skipjack sufficiently to increase the prices, which had fallen to a historical low of US$350-450/tonne during 2000 (FAO/GLOBEFISH, 2000b). The market stabilized in 2001 (FAO/GLOBEFISH, 2001b), but prices declined once again in 2002. In early 2003 the WTPO required that the vessels remain longer in port after unloading; the larger vessels would remain on port longer than the smaller ones.( data).

The WTPO Asian Group meeting, held in Seoul (Republic of Korea) in February 2003, addressed, once again, the price decline of whole round frozen skipjack on the Bangkok market. The price had fallen from US$700/tonne in December 2002 to US$600/tonne cost and freight (c&f) in February 2003 ( data). The so-called "Bangkok bottleneck" was brought about by vessels in the Indian and Atlantic Ocean selling and unloading their fish in the nearby Bangkok market, rather than using traditional sales channels such as the Seychelles, Mauritius and the Maldives. With an already oversupplied Bangkok market, this practice caused world skipjack prices to decline ( data).

The WTPO proposed that the skipjack catches be reduced by increasing the number of days in spent in port after unloading, and that the French and Spanish fleets make a commitment not to supply the Bangkok market at prices below the current market levels ( data). Because of the unwillingness of members to complying with the WTPO recommendations, they were reformulated two months later. By that time (late April 2003) frozen skipjack prices had dropped to US$450/tonne (ATUNA. com data).

The new system of reduction involving the fishing vessels is related to the capacities of the boats. Boats with capacities less than 1 300 tonnes would remain in port for at least eight days, boats with capacities of 1 300 to 1 700 tonnes would remain in port for at least ten days and boats with capacities of more than 1 700 tonnes would remain in port for at least 12 days. Taiwan Province of China and the Philippines left deposits of US$140 000 and US$100 000, respectively, which would be lost if any of their vessels failed to comply with the measures. In the months which followed, skipjack prices in the Bangkok market increased to US$700-720/tonne in July 2003 and US$750-780/tonne in December 2003 (FAO/GLOBEFISH data bank).

El Niño

Easterly surface winds blow almost constantly over northern South America, which causes upwelling of cool, nutrient-rich subsurface water along the equator east of 160°W, in the coastal regions off South America, and in offshore areas off Mexico and Central America. El Niño events are characterized by weaker-than-normal easterly surface winds, which cause above-normal sea-surface temperatures and sea levels and deeper-than-normal thermoclines over much of the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean (EPO). In addition, the Southern Oscillation Indices (SOIs) are negative during El Niño episodes. (The SOI is the difference between the anomalies of sea-level atmospheric pressure at Tahiti, French Polynesia, and Darwin, Australia. It is a measure of the strength of the easterly surface winds, especially in the tropical Pacific in the Southern Hemisphere.) La Niña events, which are the opposite of El Niño events, are characterized by stronger-than-normal easterly surface winds, below-normal SSTs and sea levels, shallower-than-normal thermoclines, and positive SOIs (IATTC, 2004). During El Niño events the catches of tunas tend to decline due to the greater depth of the thermocline, which reduces the catchability of the fish, whereas during La Niña events the catches of tunas tend to increase.

The catches per unit of effort (CPUEs) of tunas in the EPO declined considerably during the El Niño event of 1982-1983, which caused many of the vessels to transfer their operations to the western and central Pacific Ocean (WCPO), and the catches of yellowfin tuna in the EPO by surface gear declined from 181 813 tonnes in 1981 to 94 256 tonnes in 1983 (IATTC, 2004). In turn, the catches in the WCPO, until 1979 almost a virgin ground for commercial tuna fishing, increased from 3 759 tonnes in 1980 to 155 733 tonnes in 1984 (FISHSTAT Plus data).

The greatest catches of skipjack in the WCPO are taken in an area where relatively cool, more-saline water from the central and eastern Pacific Ocean converges with relatively warm, less-saline water of the western Pacific warm pool. The area of convergence shifts eastward and westward, in accordance with oceanographic conditions, by as much as 50° of longitude. During El Niño events it is displaced eastward, and during La Niña events it is displaced westward. The areas of greatest skipjack catches can be predicted several months in advance by examination of oceanographic data (Lehodey et al., 1997).

The situation in the Indian Ocean is somewhat similar to (but not related to) that in the Pacific Ocean. Normally, the water is relatively warm in the eastern Indian Ocean, near Indonesia, and relatively cool in the western Indian Ocean, near Africa. However, due to changes in the winds and ocean currents the normal pattern can become reversed, which happened in 1961, 1967, 1972, 1994, and 1997-1998 (Saji et al., 1999; Webster et al., 1999). This condition is known as the "Indian Ocean dipole". The subsequent surface warming of the Western Indian Ocean affects the productivity of the area in the same way as an El Niño event affects the productivity of the EPO. Hence, commercial tuna fleets moved their operations from the western to the eastern Indian Ocean during 1998 (INFOFISH, Pers. Comm.). The catches of tunas in the western Indian Ocean decreased from 572 393 tonnes in 1996 to 545 022 tonnes in 1998, while those in the eastern Indian Ocean increased from 148 807 tonnes in 1996 to 193 248 tonnes in 1998 (FISHSTAT Plus data).

The principal non-human induced factors influencing the availability of tuna resources are climatic and meteorological conditions. The clearest example is given by the impact of El Niño (see Box 1) on the catchability of tuna in the EPO in 1982-1983 (IATTC, 2004). Other factors include the balance of the ecosystem, including availability and abundance of forage and predators.

World catches of the principal market species of tunas

According to FISHSTAT Plus data, total catches of tunas increased from 402 350 tonnes in 1950 to 3 782 379 tonnes in 1999, decreased to 3 672 202 tonnes in 2000 and then increased to 3 692 701 tonnes in 2001 (Figure 1). The catches of tunas in 2001 represented 63 percent of world catch of tunas, bonitos and billfishes. Skipjack is the principal species caught, followed by yellowfin, bigeye, albacore and the three species of bluefin.

The world catches of skipjack increased from 162 329 tonnes in 1950 to 1 988 826 tonnes in 1999, and then declined to 1 836 438 tonnes in 2001. The principal fishing ground is the WCPO; other relatively important fishing grounds are the western Indian Ocean and the northwestern Pacific Ocean. The greatest catches of skipjack are taken by Japan, followed by Indonesia, Taiwan Province of China and the Republic of Korea.

The world catches of yellowfin increased from 109 605 tonnes in 1950 to 1 202 312 tonnes in 2001. The principal yellowfin fishing ground is the WCPO, followed by the EPO and the western Indian Ocean. The greatest catches of yellowfin are taken by Mexico, Venezuela, Taiwan Province of China and Japan.

The world catches of bigeye increased from 808 tonnes in 1950 to 410 595 tonnes in 2000, and then decreased to 372 110 tonnes in 2001. The principal bigeye fishing grounds are the EPO, the western Indian Ocean and the eastern central Atlantic Ocean. The greatest catches of bigeye are taken by Japan and Taiwan Province of China.

The world catches of albacore increased from 103 676 tonnes in 1950 to 221 473 tonnes in 2001, after reaching a peak of 244 269 tonnes in 1989. The principal fishing area is the northwestern Pacific Ocean. The greatest catches of albacore are taken by Japan, Taiwan Province of China, the United States and Spain.

The world catches of Atlantic bluefin tuna increased from 24 480 tonnes in 1950 to 52 581 tonnes in 1996, and then decreased to 35 682 tonnes in 2001. The principal fishing area is the Mediterranean Sea. The greatest catches of Atlantic bluefin are taken by France, Spain and Italy.

The world catches of southern bluefin tuna declined from 55 487 tonnes in 1972 to 15 543 tonnes in 2001. The principal fishing area is the eastern Indian Ocean. The greatest catches of southern bluefin are taken by Japan and Australia.

The world catches of Pacific bluefin tuna declined from 31 542 tonnes in 1961 to 9 143 tonnes in 2001. The principal fishing area is the northwestern Pacific Ocean. The greatest catches of Pacific bluefin tuna are taken by Japan and Taiwan Province of China.

[46] Activity A3/A4 results from the merging of ex project activity A3: demand for tuna raw materials and products and their prices, and A4: socio-economic importance of tuna industry: fishing, processing and marketing.
[47] For instance, skipjack and (to a lesser extent) yellowfin by the end of the decade ("the Bangkok bottleneck").
[48] Available
[49] A detailed analysis of the world tuna market before 1989 is available in ADB/INFOFISH (1991).
[50] Further information is available in (1) the section Analysis of the factors affecting tuna catches, (2) the subsection Whole raw material for canning of the section Selection of key prices and price series analysis and (3) the subsection The market for raw material and canned tuna of the section Conclusion.
[51] The next section, "tuna industry analysis", will provide an overview of the world market for tuna commodities, with a particular focus on international demand (imports) and prices.

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