Europe Clamps Down on Overfishing of Bluefin Tuna
BRUSSELS, Belgium, March 20, 2008 (ENS) - The European Commission has launched a major EU control campaign aimed at preventing a repeat of last year's overfishing of Mediterranean bluefin tuna by a number of EU member states. This season, 16 aircraft and 49 large and small patrol vessels will conduct inspections at sea, while 50 inspectors will visit vessels in port.

The launch of the Joint Deployment Plan marks the EU's determination to ensure that the 15 year recovery plan for the giant tunas, agreed within the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, ICCAT, in November 2006, is fully respected.

Prized by sushi lovers, especially in Japan, Atlantic bluefin tuna can command prices of hundreds of dollars per kilo at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market.

Bluefin tuna fisherman with his catch (Photo courtesy European Commission)

The Commission says that even effective control measures will not suffice to ensure the sustainability of the fishery until the member states concerned tackle the gross overcapacity of the fleet that targets bluefin tuna.

As documented in a report published last week by the global conservation organization WWF, the whole fishery is plagued by overfishing by a fleet that keeps growing in size and efficiency both in the EU and in the other coastal states that target bluefin tuna.

Joe Borg, European Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, said, "I welcome the cooperation of the member states in organizing the joint control effort. However, they need to go much further to tackle the root of the problem with courage and determination by ensuring the necessary scrapping of vessels till a sustainable balance is found between fishing capacity and fishing possibilities."

"Public funding is available under the European Fisheries Fund for vessel owners and crews affected by such scrapping. Financial support is also available to the fishing communities concerned to help them diversify their economies," said Borg.

He pledged that the Commission "will do all it can" to help the member states return the fishery to "ecological, economic and social sustainability." But the country with the greatest overcapacity, Turkey, is not an EU member state, and Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Croatia, which also fish for bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean, are not member states either.

Until the fleet overcapacity has been reduced in line with the sustainable level of the resource, control and enforcement will continue to be a critical issue in the fishery.

The Joint Deployment Plan, which will be coordinated by the Community Fisheries Control Agency, marks an unprecedented effort, in terms of both the scale of operations, and the technical means deployed.

Latest generation Spanish-flagged purse seine fishing vessels side by side at their home port of L’Ametlla de Mar, Tarragona. (Photo courtesy WWF)

The plan will bring together the resources of the seven main member states involved in the fishery - Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain - and will cover all stages in the market chain, including controls at sea, onshore, and at fattening farms.

A special Technical Joint Deployment Group will be set up in Brussels on April 1 to coordinate activities under the plan, and will remain in operation there until the end of the year.

The ICCAT recovery plan includes a new control scheme to address the issue of underreporting in the eastern bluefin fishery, which is the most radical and comprehensive scheme of its kind ever adopted by a Regional Fisheries Management Organisation.

In practical terms, the Community Fisheries Control Agency will coordinate joint inspection and control activities of 13 large patrol vessels, 36 coastal patrol vessels and 16 aircraft.

There will be 14 campaigns at sea involving in all 30 inspectors representing overall 160 patrol days.

Twenty-five joint inspections involving 50 inspectors are planned in the ports concerned. Commission inspectors will also be involved in 32 inspection visits both at sea and in ports.

The Commission has welcomed the report published by WWF, which analyzes the causes of the overfishing of bluefin tuna and its conclusions on the need to eliminate this overcapacity.

This WWF-commissioned report, researched and compiled by independent consultancy A.T.R.T., is the first real estimate of the actual catch capability of the Mediterranean purse seine fleet targeting bluefin tuna.

The report, "Race for the Last Bluefin," says that "fleet overcapacity in terms of number of vessels, as well as in terms of gross registered tonnage and total installed engine power, is by far greatest in Turkey, followed by Italy, Croatia and Libya."

An economic analysis based on the minimum catches required to cover costs and generate minimum economic revenues shows strong overcapitalization particularly in Turkey, Libya, Croatia and Italy.

WWF says that "the current operational purse seine fishing fleet targeting bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea from the 11 coastal states ... has a calculated yearly catch potential of 54,783 metric tonnes that is almost double the annual total allowable catch set by ICCAT - 28,500 metric tonnes in 2008.

Tunisian-flagged well vessel in the Mediterranean transfers live bluefin to ranching cages for fattening. (Photo ©® Greenpeace/Care courtesy WWF)

The fleet's catch potential is more than three and a half times the catch levels advised by scientists to avoid stock collapse - 15,000 metric tonnes.

Based on database searches, shipyard censuses and supported by evidence from photographic documentation of vessels, still, WWF notes, the report does not take into account the catch potential of the rest of the bluefin tuna fleet - the longliners, traps, bait boats, pelagic trawlers, and hand line boats.

The WWF report finds that to merely comply with the legal quotas Libya should eliminate from the fishery 22 vessels (58 percent capacity reduction), Italy 17 vessels (36 percent capacity reduction) and France a total 15 vessels (45 percent capacity reduction).

To match sustainable catch levels and saving the stock, fleet reduction should be far more drastic: decommissioning as many as 31 large purse seiners in Italy (67 percent capacity reduction), 30 vessels in Libya (78 percent capacity reduction) and 23 vessels in France (72 percent capacity reduction).

Turkey is a case apart, the report says, with an estimated need of capacity reduction ranging between 94-97 percent, equivalent to 168-173 large seiners. Fleet reduction needs have also been quantified for Algeria, Croatia, Spain and Tunisia.

Minimum total fleet reduction in the Mediterranean - excluding Turkey - estimated to avoid collapse of the bluefin tuna stock amounts to 110 medium and large purse seine vessels.

To read the report, "Race for the Last Bluefin," click here.

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