The Battle Over Bluefin
BRUSSELS, Belgium, September 30, 2009 (ENS) - Bluefin tuna is at risk of extinction as a species if unsustainable fishing practices in the Mediterranean are not stopped, scientists and some European countries are warning.

The European Commission has expressed its "grave concerns" about the state of stocks of the giant migratory fish, which are rapidly declining after decades of overfishing.

Last week, European ministers were considering a proposal to protect the bluefin tuna by listing the species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES.

Such a listing, if accepted by the upcoming 15th session of the Conference of the Parties to CITES scheduled for March 13-25, 2010 in Doha, Qatar, would automatically implement a temporary ban on all international trade.

European fisherman pulls in a net full of bluefin tuna. (Photo © Lionel Flageul courtesy European Commission)

But in a vote September 21, the 27 EU countries were sharply divided and could not agree on a CITES proposal to protect the bluefin tuna.

In order to be considered at CITES's next Conference of the Parties in Doha, proposal submissions must be received by October 17, 2009.

Monaco, the first country in the world to ban the sale of bluefin tuna, spearheaded the CITES proposal. The UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria have all publicly indicated their support for the ban.

But another group of European countries opposes a ban, mainly countries with large fishing fleets such as Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Spain, and Italy.

The European Commission, the executive branch of the EU government, backed Monaco's CITES proposal.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas called it "an important step in the protection of Atlantic bluefin tuna."

"We must act on the best scientific evidence available to us," said Dimas, "and scientists say that urgent action is needed to safeguard the future of one of the ocean's most emblematic creatures."

"From a scientific and technical point of view, the criteria for the listing of Atlantic bluefin tuna as an endangered species appear to be met," reads a draft document by the European Commission's environment directorate. "There is no doubt about the link between international trade and overexploitation of the species."

EU member states can still review their position before the triennial CITES meeting in Doha in March 2010, when the final decision will be taken.

The Atlantic bluefin tuna is a large migratory fish found in the western and eastern Atlantic and in the Mediterranean Sea, where the tuna come every spring to spawn.

A dish of bluefin tuna sashimi (Photo by Sushifreak)

Bluefin tuna is prized around the world, usually eaten as high-grade sushi. Some 80 percent of Mediterranean tuna is exported to the Japanese market, which dictates prices. Some 30,000 tons of bluefin were sent from Europe to Japan in 2007, according to the European Commission.

In Japan, the price of a single bluefin tuna can range from US$2,000 to $50,000, depending on the size, the season, and the fat content - fatty tuna is the most desirable.

Once in awhile, a buyer will pay even more. At the daily fish auction at Tokyo's Tsukiji market last January, a Hong Kong sushi bar owner and his Japanese competitor agreed to share a giant bluefin caught in Japanese waters. They also shared the cost - $153,000.

Tuna weighing up to 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) were once found throughout the Mediterranean, but now such large fish are rare. These days, fishermen often catch small tuna before they can reproduce and place them in net cages to be fed and fattened until they are big enough for sale.

Since the European ministers failed to agree on a CITES proposal, EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg says it is now up to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, ICCAT, "to assume its full responsibility to ensure the recovery of bluefin tuna."

ICCAT is the organization in charge of regulating the bluefin tuna industry. The Commission had hoped the EU could take a united stand at the next ICCAT meeting November 6-15 in Recife, Brazil, but that too now looks unlikely.

A port inspector checks the mesh gauge of a net to make sure it is of legal size. (Photo by G. Bizzarri courtesy FAO)

In November 2008, the ICCAT was criticized by environmentalists when it decided on catch limits higher than the organization's own scientists recommended.

Some environmentalists say that quotas set by ICCAT would be sustainable if stringent enforcement was possible, but they warn that poaching is rampant.

Bluefin are threatened by illegal fishing but even legal fishing for bluefin in the Mediterranean became much more efficient in the 1990s when purse seiners began targeting the species. Each of these vessels can catch up to 3,000 bluefin in a single seine net, and hundreds of seiners now target the prized fish.

Purse-seining is high-tech fishing on an industrial level. The fishing vessels circle the tuna's Mediterranean spawning areas, waiting for word from spotter planes on the lookout for bluefin. When schools of bluefin surface, the planes send the coordinates to the fishing vessels, which then head for that location at full speed.

In response to calls to crack down on illegal, unregulated, and underreported fishing, another regulatory tool is being sharpened. During talks brokered by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 91 countries agreed September 1 on the final text of a new treaty that aims to close fishing ports to vessels involved in these practices.

The new agreement sets minimum fishing standards that will apply to ports in all countries. The agreement calls for "prior notification by the flag state to confirm the legality of the catches held onboard before a vessel is granted access to port facilities, procedures for inspection of foreign vessels when at port and a legal basis for denying IUU-listed vessels access to port facilities."

The European Commission says it welcomes the FAO agreement and acknowledges that "serious control and enforcement deficiencies" in all member states led to widespread overfishing in 2007.

Conservationists maintain that without the pressure of consumer demand, bluefin fishermen would be less motivated to catch so many. They are encouraging restaurants, chefs, retailers and consumers to stop serving, buying, selling and eating imperiled bluefin tuna until the species shows signs of recovery.

Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.