Tuna Industry Background

The SBT industry is an Australian success story pioneered by the Port Lincoln fishing industry, and is the single most valuable sector of South Australia’s aquaculture industry (PIRSA, 2012); however it has not been without its challenges.  Since 1991 the industry has participated in two Cooperative Research Centres involving major Australian research institutions, investing a significant amount of money to ultimately understand, enhance and improve farming/ranching methods.

Whilst significant advances have been made in areas involving fish health, nutrition, product quality, physiology and metabolism and the environment (Montague et al., 2008) there is still a long way to go to fully optimise ranching operations.


The history of the Port Lincoln SBT industry is one of intrigue, exploitation, uncertainty, desperation, political influence and innovation.  It began in 1936 when Stanley Fowler from the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) initiated a survey to assess tuna stocks using a military plane and fishing vessels.  The survey was undertaken to stimulate economic development as until this time the fishery was largely unappreciated or exploited (Serventy, 1956).  The survey was interrupted during the years of World War II when the survey vessel F.R.V. Warreen was commissioned by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).

Great Australian Bight and Port Lincoln Surrounds

Geographic location of Port Lincoln, South Australia. Cadastral chart Aus 04709 of the Australian South Coast with insert of Aus 00134 Port Lincoln and Approaches (Calder, 1977).

Post-War Tuna Fishery

At the end of the war the vessel was re-commissioned until 1951 when the RAN transferred the vessel back again.  The SBT fishery survey was continued using the F.R.V. Stanley Fowler, and the first commercial SBT trolling fishery is believed to have started in 1949 (Serventy, 1956).

In the 1950s the South Australian government financially supported the building of the purse seine vessel the F.V. Tacoma, in Port Fairy, Victoria (Plevin, 2000), from where it made its way to Port Lincoln.

After a series of start-up issues, the F.V. Tacoma caught its first catch of 10 tonnes of SBT destined for the local cannery in the northern area of Boston Bay near Port Lincoln.  Following this catch, the South Australian government initiated a survey of tuna fish stocks using the F.V. Tacoma and fishing expertise from the United States of America.

Figure 2. The proud crew of the F.V. ‘Tacoma’ on return from a South Australian Government funded survey of tuna resources in the Great Australian Bight. Note that only one of the six fish in the photograph is an SBT (Axel Stenross Museum, Port Lincoln).

The proud crew of the F.V. ‘Tacoma’ on return from a South Australian Government funded survey of tuna resources in the Great Australian Bight. Note that only one of the six fish in the photograph is a Southern Bluefin Tuna (Axel Stenross Museum, Port Lincoln).

The results of the survey initiated an expansion of the tuna fishing industry and vessels began to use the tuna-poling method, trolling and purse seine to haul in SBT catches. The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a rapid increase in SBT fishing with record catches from fishing pole fishing, long-line and purse seine gear in the unregulated fishery.


Global Southern Bluefin Tuna catches 1950-2010. Source Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO)

Spotting planes were introduced to locate schools of SBT from the air and direct vessels to their location.  Vessels changed from wood to metal and fishing effort increased through the cooperation between purse-seine and pole-fishing vessels (Campbell, 2001) resulting in significantly more SBT landings.

SBT spotter plane operating in the Great Australian Bight (Photo Courtesy of Kirsten Rough).

SBT spotter plane operating in the Great Australian Bight (Photo Courtesy of Kirsten Rough).

The catches underpinned the local economy primarily through employment in the Port Lincoln tuna cannery.  However, in 1979 fishery biologists warned that the fishery was fully exploited, the parental biomass was being reduced at an alarming rate (30% of its pre-exploitation size), and that this would ultimately result in poor recruitment of juvenile SBT to the fishery in subsequent years.  Despite these warnings, fishing effort was maintained and the Australian catch reached a peak of 21,000 tonnes in 1982 (Geen and Nayer, 1989).

The fishing pressure/effort continued into the early 1980s when an Australian Government inquiry in 1983 found that the fishery was biologically over-exploited and heavily over-capitalised (Geen and Nayer, 1989).  In the meantime, fishing vessels were scouring the ocean for ever scarcer schools of SBT.

Range of SBT

Migratory path of Southern Bluefin Tuna around Australia


Introduction of Individual Transferable Quotas

In 1984 Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) were allocated by the Australian Government to fishermen to recognise historical catch and investment and to prevent further exploitation and growth in the industry.  Japanese and New Zealand governments also agreed to limit catches.  As SBT catch was significantly below quotas set by Australian, Japanese and New Zealand governments between 1984 – 1988, all three countries agreed to further reduce catch limits with annual reviews (Geen and Nayer, 1989).

Informal management of the SBT fishery between the three countries was formalised in 1994 through the formation of the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT).  Today there are seven member countries of the CCSBT (CCSBT, 2013).

Yearly Quotas Introduced for Japan, Australia and New Zealand

In 1989 a trilateral conference was held between Japan, Australia and New Zealand where it was agreed that the total combined yearly quota for all three countries would be limited to 11,750 tonnes.  A harvest strategy was put in place by the Australian Government and they began contributing data towards stock assessments conducted by an international scientific committee. With this in mind, it became very clear to the fishermen of Port Lincoln that to survive financially in the face of fishing restrictions and over capitalisation that they had to increase the value of their fishery.

A study was initiated by the Tuna Boat Owners Association of Australia (ATBOA) and the Federation of Japan Tuna Fisheries Co-operative Associations in conjunction with the Overseas Fishery Cooperation Foundation (OFCF) and the support of the South Australian Government and the Australian Government.  This project was undertaken by the SBT industry in partnership with the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC).

SBT Ranching

Tuna Ranching Begins in Port Lincoln

The value of the SBT on the Japanese sashimi market was quickly realised and on the basis of this study, the industry progressed from poling individual SBT into vessel tanks to the purse seine capture of schools of SBT transferred into specially designed towing pontoons and towed back to Port Lincoln for further for on-growing in static ranching pontoons. This change in catching approach facilitated the rapid expansion and development of the Port Lincoln tuna ranching industry.

Since 1990, the industry has steadily expanded to produce up to 9,000 tonnes of gilled and gutted SBT annually with an estimated annual value of between AUD$150 – AUD$300 million (PIRSA, 2012).   Direct and indirect employment in Port Lincoln is over 1500 Full Time Equivalents (Econsearch, 2007).

These days, 12 companies ranch Southern Bluefin Tuna in around 100 pontoons in the Lincoln Offshore Aquaculture Zone (inner and outer sectors).

A public map is available to view lease site locations via the PIRSA website, visit – www.pir.sa.gov.au

Boston Bay and Lincoln Offshore Aquaculture Zone

Boston Bay and Lincoln Offshore Aquaculture Zone Map with SBT lease sites