Atlantic Bigeye Tuna

Atlantic Bigeye Tuna

Thunnus obesus


    Tuna, Big Eye, Ahi-b


    U.S. wild-caught from Massachusetts to Florida



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Atlantic Bigeye Tuna

Measuring a bigeye tuna.


Bigeye tuna is a “highly migratory species” – these fish are found around the world and can travel across an entire ocean. Unlike non-migratory species that are only found off our coasts, U.S. fishermen aren’t the only ones fishing for highly migratory species such as bigeye tuna. Fisheries for these species require cooperative international management to ensure the resource is abundant and global harvests are sustainable. Although NOAA Fisheries is responsible for managing our domestic fisheries for bigeye tuna in the Atlantic, the United States is also a member of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and negotiates with other member nations to enhance international management of bigeye tuna (along with other tunas, billfish, and sharks). With international cooperation to limit catches and protect undersized bigeye, the Atlantic bigeye tuna stock is increasing in size and approaching sustainable levels.

Bigeye tuna isn’t a major focus of U.S. commercial tuna fisheries in the Atlantic – annual bigeye harvests only make up about 15 percent of all Atlantic tunas brought to port by U.S. fishermen and less than 1 percent of the Atlantic bigeye tuna harvested worldwide. Almost all of the U.S. commercial harvest of bigeye tuna comes from the Pacific (see Pacific Bigeye Tuna). We export a small amount of this, but the remainder makes up only about half of the bigeye tuna we eat because we also import bigeye tuna, mainly from Asia, South America, and Central America.

Looking Ahead

The Atlantic bigeye tuna stock is currently being harvested at sustainable levels. However, there are uncertainties regarding the status of the stock, and managers and scientists are still concerned about the high levels of juvenile bigeye tuna catches in certain fisheries. Strong international cooperation is needed for appropriate management and conservation of this fishery resource.



Bigeye tuna is one of the tropical tunas, and it is found in the tropical and warm temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. In the western Atlantic, they live from Southern Nova Scotia to as far south as Brazil.

Bigeye tuna is a pelagic species – they live at or near the surface to about 800 feet deep, deeper than other tropical tunas. Larvae are found in tropical waters, and as juvenile fish grow larger they tend to move into temperate waters. Bigeye tuna is a highly migratory species, swimming long distances throughout the ocean. They often swim in schools that dive into deeper waters during the day. They sometimes school with yellowfin and skipjack tunas at the surface, especially in warm waters.



Bigeye tuna grow relatively fast, up to 5 ½ feet, and live about 9 years. Bigeye tuna are able to reproduce when they reach age 3 ½. They spawn in tropical waters throughout the year but most often during the summer. They usually spawn at least twice a year. Females release between 3 million and 6 million or more eggs each time they spawn.

Bigeye tuna feed near the top of the food chain on many aquatic species, such as fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans. They’re also prey for top predators such as sharks, large billfish, and toothed whales.



Bigeye tuna is dark metallic blue on the back and upper sides and white on the lower sides and belly. The first fin on their back is deep yellow, the second dorsal and anal fin are brownish or yellowish with narrow black edges, and the finlets are bright yellow with broad black edges. Their bodies are stocky and robust, and their eyes are large (thus the name bigeye).

Bigeye and yellowfin tuna look fairly similar, and it can be hard to distinguish between juveniles of the two species. Among other distinguishing characteristics, bigeye’s eyes are larger than the yellowfin’s and their finlets have black edges.



The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) assesses the abundance of Atlantic bigeye tuna and evaluates the sustainability of current and proposed harvest practices. They use the scientific information from these assessments to make management recommendations. They assessed bigeye tuna in 2010 and plan to assess the species again in 2014.



Scientists estimated the Atlantic bigeye tuna stock to be near its target population level.


Harvesting Bigeye Tuna

Bigeye tuna is a highly migratory species – they travel throughout large areas of the ocean and are harvested by many nations using different types of fishing gear. U.S. commercial fishermen mainly harvest bigeye tuna using pelagic longlines. They also sometimes use rod and reel gear.

Although neither gear type has an impact on habitat, pelagic longlines can incidentally catch protected species such as marine mammals and sea turtles. U.S. commercial fishermen using pelagic longline gear follow a number of strict regulations to prevent bycatch:

  • They must use large circle hooks and certain types of bait that limit gear interactions with sea turtles. Circle hooks are specifically designed to minimize the damage caused by hooking, giving animals that are captured and released a better chance at survival.
  • They’re trained to use special techniques to safely dehook and disentangle any unintentionally caught turtles.
  • They’re also required to stop fishing and move 1 nautical mile if they encounter a protected species.
  • To protect pilot whales and Risso’s dolphins, pelagic longline vessels fishing in the Mid-Atlantic Bight must limit the length of their lines to 20 nautical miles and post marine mammal handling/release guidelines on their vessels. In addition, if fishing in the Cape Hatteras Special Research Area, pelagic longliners must contact NOAA Fisheries at least 48 hours prior to a trip and carry observers if requested.
  • In the Gulf of Mexico, longline fishermen must use weak hooks to reduce accidental catch of bluefin tuna and may not use live bait in order to reduce bycatch of billfish.
  • Areas in the Gulf of Mexico and seasonal areas in the Atlantic are closed to longline fishing to reduce bycatch.
  • Longline fishermen must carry vessel monitoring systems (satellite technology) onboard their boats to enforce these closures.
  • NOAA Fisheries monitors the pelagic longline fishery for interactions with protected species through at-sea fisheries observers on a quarterly basis and reviews data for appropriate action, if any, as necessary.



Who’s in charge? NOAA Fisheries Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Management Division; also, because Atlantic bigeye tuna move throughout large areas of the Atlantic Ocean and are fished by many nations using various gear types, management by the United States alone is not enough to ensure that harvests are sustainable in the long term. The United States negotiates with Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, including the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), to enhance tuna management worldwide. We set regulations for the bigeye tuna fishery based on science and conservation and management recommendations from ICCAT.

Current management: Consolidated Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan
Domestic management measures for this fishery include permits, gear restrictions, time/area closures, and quotas. To provide additional protection to the bigeye tuna stock, particularly juveniles, bigeye tuna must be a minimum of 27 inches to be harvested in both commercial and recreational fisheries. This regulation is stricter than ICCAT requirements. Federal management for Atlantic tunas apply to state waters as well, except in Maine, Connecticut, and Mississippi; NOAA Fisheries periodically reviews these states’ regulations to make sure they’re consistent with federal regulations.

ICCAT conservation and management recommendations include an annual total allowable catch allocated among members, sharing arrangements for member countries, minimum size limits, effort controls, time/area closures, trade restrictions, compliance measures, and monitoring and inspection programs. ICCAT recommends adherence to an international cap on bigeye landings of 85,000 metric tons to allow the stock to continue to grow. ICCAT remains concerned about unreported catches and encourages tuna Regional Fishery Management Organizations to examine the possibility of “fish laundering” (reporting landings as another species) for bigeye and other species.


Annual Harvest

U.S. harvest of Atlantic bigeye tuna is usually only a small fraction (1 percent or less) of the global Atlantic bigeye harvest. U.S. commercial fishermen brought about 673 metric tons of bigeye tuna to port in 2010.



From 2003 to 2010, the average ex-vessel price (the price fishermen receive for their catch) of bigeye tuna increased about 40 percent. The ex-vessel price depends on a number of factors, including the quality of the fish (e.g., freshness, fat content, method of storage), the weight of the fish, the supply of fish, and consumer demand. In 2010, annual ex-vessel revenues for the fishery totaled over $5 million.

In addition, recreational fishing for highly migratory species such as bigeye tuna also provides significant economic benefits to coastal communities through individual angler expenditures, recreational charters, tournaments, and the shoreside businesses that support those activities.



Recreational fishermen also fish for bigeye tuna. They must have a permit to fish for bigeye and may only catch and keep bigeye tuna larger than 27 inches.



Bigeye tuna meat has a reddish-pink color. It typically has a higher fat content than yellowfin and is preferred by sashimi lovers. The prices paid for both frozen and fresh product on the Japanese sashimi market are the highest of all the tropical tunas. Tropical tunas such as bigeye caught in the purse seine fishery are often canned as “light” tuna. Bigeye from other fisheries is sold fresh and frozen.






Tuna is low in saturated fat and sodium and is a very good source of protein, thiamin, selenium, and vitamin B6.

Servings 1
Serving Weight 113 g
Calories 130
Protein 27 g
Fat, total 2 g
Saturated fatty acids, total 0.5 g
Carbohydrate 0 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 45 mg
Sodium 70 mg

Atlantic Bigeye Tuna Table of Nutrition



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