Fisheries and Resources Monitoring System

Yellowfin tuna - Indian Ocean
Fact Sheet Title  Fact Sheet Title
Stock status report 2009
Yellowfin tuna - Indian Ocean
Fact Sheet Citation  
Yellowfin tuna Indian Ocean
Owned byIndian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) – ownership
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Species List:
Species Ref: en - Yellowfin tuna, fr - Albacore, es - Rabil, ru - Тунец желтоперый
ident Block Yellowfin tuna - Indian Ocean
Aq Res
Biological Stock: Yes         Value: Regional
Reference year: 2008
Aq Res State Trend
Aq Res State Trend
Aq Res State Trend Aq Res State Trend
Aq Res State TrendHigh fishing mortalityHigh fishing mortality
Aq Res State TrendIntermediate abundance, OverfishedIntermediate abundance
Aq Res State Trend
Aq Res State TrendOverexploited

Stock size and fishing pressure are considered to be close to their value at MSY.
Habitat Bio
Depth Zone: Unspecified.   Horizontal Dist: Oceanic.   Vertical Dist: Pelagic.  

Yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) is a cosmopolitan species distributed mainly in the tropical and subtropical oceanic waters of the three major oceans, where it forms large schools. The sizes exploited in the Indian Ocean range from 30 cm to 180 cm fork length. Smaller fish (juveniles) form mixed schools with skipjack and juvenile bigeye tuna and are mainly limited to surface tropical waters, while larger fish are found in surface and sub-surface waters. Intermediate age yellowfin are seldom taken in the industrial fisheries, but are abundant in some artisanal fisheries, mainly in the Arabian Sea.

Spawning occurs mainly from December to March in the equatorial area (0-10°S), with the main spawning grounds west of 75°E. Secondary spawning grounds exist off and the Mozambique Channel and in the eastern Indian Ocean off . Yellowfin size at first maturity has been estimated at around 100 cm, and recruitment occurs predominantly in July. Newly recruited fish are primarily caught by the purse seine fishery on floating objects. Males are predominant in the catches of larger fish at sizes than 150 cm (this is also the case in other oceans).

Tag-recovery data, recent age readings of otoliths and modal progressions provide support to a multi-stanza growth pattern for yellowfin but more work is needed to accurately model this complex growth pattern so it can be used in stock assessments.

Direct estimates of natural mortality (M) have been estimated for juvenile (40 cm to 100 cm long) yellowfin in the Indian Ocean using the data from the RTTP-IO. The current estimates (0.8 for 0 to 1 year old fish and 0.4 for fish 2 years and over) are much lower that previously assumed levels.

Feeding behaviour of yellowfin has been extensively studied and it is largely opportunistic, with a variety of prey species being consumed, including large concentrations of crustaceans that have occurred recently in the tropical areas and small meso-pelagic fishes which are abundant in the Arabian Sea. It has also been observed that large yellowfin can feed on very small prey, thus increasing the availability of food for this species. Archival tagging of yellowfin has shown that yellowfin can dive very deep (over 1000m) probably to feed on meso-pelagic prey.
Geo Dist
Geo Dist: Highly migratory

Water Area Overview
Spatial Scale: Regional

Water Area Overview
Aq Res Struct
Biological Stock: Yes

Longline catch data indicates that yellowfin are distributed continuously throughout the entire tropical Indian Ocean, but some more detailed analysis of fisheries data suggests that the stock structure may be more complex. A study of stock structure using DNA was unable to detect whether there were subpopulations of yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean.

The tag recoveries of the RTTP-IO provide evidence of large movements of yellowfin tuna, thus supporting the assumption of a single stock for the Indian Ocean. The average minimum distance travelled by yellowfin between being tagged and recovered is 525 nautical miles. Both RTTP-IO and fisheries data indicate that medium sized yellowfin concentrate for feeding in the Arabian Sea.


Catches by gear, and per year from 1959 to 2008 are in Figure 1. Contrary to the situation in other oceans, the artisanal fishery component in the Indian Ocean is substantial, taking approximately 20-25 % of the total catch.

The geographical distribution of yellowfin tuna catches in the Indian Ocean in recent years by the main gear types is shown in Figure 2. Most yellowfin tuna are caught in Indian Ocean north of 12°S and in the Mozambique Channel (north of 25°S).

Although some Japanese purse seiners have fished in the Indian Ocean since 1977, the purse seine fishery developed rapidly with the arrival of European vessels between 1982 and 1984. Since then, there has been an increasing number of yellowfin tuna caught although a larger proportion of the catches is made of adult fish, when compared to the case of the bigeye tuna purse-seine catch. Purse seiners typically take fish ranging from 40 to 140 cm fork length and smaller fish are more common in the catches taken north of the equator. Catches of yellowfin increased rapidly to around 128,000 t in 1993. Subsequently, they fluctuated around that level, until 2003 and 2004 when they were substantially higher (224,200 t and 228,600 t, respectively). In recent years, catches appear to be higher in the first quarter of the year. The amount of effort exerted by the EU purse seine vessels (fishing for yellowfin and other tunas) varies seasonally and from year to year. Since 2000 between 800 and 1200 boat days per month were fished annually.

The purse seine fishery is characterized by the use of two different fishing modes: the fishery on floating objects (FADs), which catches large numbers of small yellowfin in association with skipjack and juvenile bigeye, and a fishery on free swimming schools, which catches larger yellowfin on mixed or pure sets. Between 1995 and 2003, the FAD component of the purse seine fishery represented 48-66 % of the sets undertaken (60-80 % of the positive sets) and took 36-63 % of the yellowfin catch by weight (59-76 % of the total catch). Since 1997, the proportion of log sets has steadily decreased from 66 % to 48 %.

The longline fishery started in the beginning of the 1950’s and expanded rapidly over the whole Indian Ocean. It catches mainly large fish, from 80 to 160 cm fork length, although smaller fish in the size range 60 cm – 100 cm have been taken by longliners from , since 1989 in the Arabian Sea. The longline fishery targets several tuna species in different parts of the Indian Ocean, with yellowfin and bigeye being the main target species in tropical waters. The longline fishery can be subdivided into an industrial component (deep-freezing longliners operating on the high seas from , and ,) and an artisanal component (fresh tuna longliners). The total longline catch of yellowfin reached a maximum in 1993 (196,000 t). Since then, catches have typically fluctuated between 80,000 t and 123,000 t.

Artisanal catches, taken by bait boat, gillnet, troll, hand line and other gears have increased steadily since the 1980s. In recent years the total artisanal yellowfin catch has been around 130,000-140,000 t, with the catch by gillnets (the dominant artisanal gear) at around 80,000 t to 90,000 t.

Yellowfin catches in the Indian Ocean during 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 were much higher than in previous years but have returned to a lower level in 2007 and 2008, while bigeye catches remained at their average levels. Purse seiners currently take the bulk of the yellowfin catch, mostly from the western Indian Oceana around . In 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006, purse seine total catches made in this area were 224,200 t, 228,600 t, 194,500 t, 159,800 t, respectively. Similarly, artisanal yellowfin catches have been near their highest levels and longliners have reported higher than normal catches in the tropical western Indian Ocean during this period. In 2007, purse seine catches decreased to their lowest levels since 1990 with a total catch of 97,800 t and were of 117,000 t in 2008.

After an initial decline, mean weights in the whole fishery remained quite stable from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Since 1993, mean weights in the catches in the industrial fisheries have declined. Prior to 2003, although total catch in biomass has been stable for several years, catches in numbers have continued to increase, as there has been more fishing effort directed towards smaller fish. As described above, this situation changed during 2003 and 2004; where most of the very large catches were obtained from fish of larger sizes.
Figure 1 Yearly catches (tonnes x 1000) of yellowfin by gear from 1958 to 2008.

Figure 2 Mean of annual total catches of yellowfin tuna by gear operating in the Indian Ocean over the period 1990-1999, 2000-2007, 2003-2006 and 2008. GILL = gillnet, LL = longline, PS = purse seine. Data as of October 2009 (note that catches of some artisanal fisheries, eg. Gillnet, where allocated according to the landing place rather than the actual area fished, as time-area catches from these fisheries are not available).
Bio Assess
Assess Models
Type:  Age-structured

The assessment of yellowfin tuna stock in the Indian Ocean is difficult because of the conflicting trends between total annual catches and abundance index (based on the longline CPUE) if data in 1950s and 1960s are included. These trends are not consistent with production-model dynamics, or any known theory of fishing because for any fished stock, dramatic and continuous increase in catches should be accompanied by a decline in abundance. For yellowfin, this is clearly not the case and suggests that there are some major unknown factors influencing the abundance index that need to be accounted for.

An assessment model (Multifan-CL) was applied this year that was able to make use of the tagging data obtained through the RTTP-IO programme.

Multifan-CL is a size-based, age- and spatially-structured population model that has the functionality to integrate the tagging data obtained from the Indian Ocean Tagging Programme. The model integrates information on the dynamics of the fish population, the fishery and tagged fish and creates observation models for the data and outputs estimates of a range of fisheries management parameters. However, the underlying complexity of the model leads to unexpected and not fully understandable results. For instance: mixing rates across areas estimated by the model were not in agreement with the patterns emerging from the tagging data and surprising large biomass declines were observed in areas where catches remained low. Moreover, the lack of size data from the longline and gillnet fisheries may cause a bias in the size structure of the stock in the recent years then lead to an exaggerated decline of the adult biomass and a very pessimistic diagnosis of the status of the stock. In particular it was noted that the estimate for 2008 should only be regarded as provisional, and that the recommendations of the WPTT were based on 2007, which was considered more reliable.

The range of MSY estimates presented was discussed. It was noted that the range does not describe the uncertainty in the outputs. It reflects three different point estimates based on alternative values for the steepness parameter of the stock recruitment relationship (0.6, 0.7 and 0.8). Noting that a value of 0.8 was considered as the most appropriate from an expert point of view, the majority of SC was comfortable recommending this value of 0.8 for yellowfin, and thus an estimate of MSY of 300,000 t.
Surplus production model

A Stock Synthesis 2 (SS2) model using catch-at-length data, growth and a CPUE series to model the stock dynamics encountered difficulty in estimating some parameters and the MSY reference values. A model run using both the Japanese and Taiwanese longline CPUEs, and separating the PS fishery according to fishing mode, estimated values of MSY to be around the 300,000 t and would indicate that the stock was above the BMSY level.
Age-structured Production Model (ASPM)

An Age-structured Production Model (ASPM) used catch-at-age data and a CPUE series to estimate biomass trends and management-related parameters. Eighty-two scenarios were examined; however, only three scenarios were able to produce converged estimates and provide biologically reasonable results.

The results suggest that Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna is now entering into an overfished status after four years of high catches (2003-2006) and the stock will be likely recover to the SSBMSY level in a few years if the catch does not exceed the level of catch in 2007 (316,000 t).

Current status

Estimates of total and spawning stock (adult) biomass continue to decline (figure 12), probably accelerated by the high catches of 2003-2006. It appears that overfishing occurred in recent years, and the effect on the standing stock is still noticeable as biomass appears to be decreasing despite catches returning to pre-2003 levels.

The MSY has been estimated to be 300,000 t, if steepness of the stock recruitment relationship is assumed to be 0.8. The preliminary estimate of 2008 catch (322,000 t) is above the current estimate of MSY while annual catches over the period 2003-2006 (averaging 464,000 t) were substantially higher than all estimated values of MSY. The most recent estimate of biomass (2007), noting that the 2008 estimate was considered uncertain to base this year’s management advice, is above the MSY-related reference value, while fishing mortality levels are estimated to be above those linked to MSY catches. Preliminary estimates for 2008 show the stock could be below the SSB at MSY value and the fishing pressure might be even higher than in 2007.

Various indicators of catch rates for different fleets and areas appear to confirm this downward trend in abundance. Catches in 2008 for longliners operating in the Arabian Sea, for example, are at a historic low.

Two hypotheses have been put forward in the past to explain the very high catches in the 2003-2006 period: (i) an increase in catchability by surface and longline fleets due to a high level of concentration across a reduced area and depth range, and (ii) increased recruitment over the 1999-2001 period. Recent analyses of environmental and oceanographic conditions appear to be consistent with the first hypothesis, which would mean that the catches probably resulted in stock depletion. Environmental anomalies also appear to be a factor linked to the lower catches in 2007.


The preliminary catch estimates for 2008 (318,400 t) is slightly lower than the average catch taken in the 1998-2002 period (336,000 t) i.e. preceding the 2003 to 2006 period when extraordinarily high catches of yellowfin were taken. While there is uncertainty about future catches, recent events in 2008 and 2009 where some vessels have left the fishery, together with fleets avoiding the historically important fishing grounds in the waters adjacent to Somalia for security reasons, may reduce catches in the short-term to below the pre-2003 levels. The SC noted that a return to a normal fishing scenario may result in increased effort levels, leading to catches above MSY.

Fishing mortality has recently exceeded the MSY-related level therefore some reduction in catch or fishing effort would be required to return exploitation rates to those related to MSY. The SC considers that the stock of yellowfin has recently been overexploited and is probably still being overfished. Management measures should be considered that allow an appropriate control of fishing pressure to be implemented.
Sci Advice

The current estimate of MSY is 300,000 t, lower than the average catches sustained over the 1992-2002 period of around 343,000 t. The high catches of the 2003-2006 period appear to have accelerated the decline of biomass in the stock, which might be currently unable to sustain the 1992-2002 level of catches. The SC recommended that catches of yellowfin tuna should not exceed the estimated MSY of 300,000.
IOTC-CTOI . Indian Ocean Tuna Commission - Commission des Thons de l'Océan Indien. “Report of the Twelfth Session of the Scientific Committee of the IOTC . IOTC-2009-SC-R[E]” 2009 Click to open
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