Commission decision threatens future of bluefin tuna

Posted: 24 November 2008

The commission set up to prevent a collapse of the Mediterranean bluefin tuna fishery today opted for catch quotas still far higher than its own scientists recommend and leaving industrial fleets free to scoop up tuna at the height of its spawning period.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, for the past week, brushed aside its own review's description of its management of the bluefin fishery as "an international disgrace". Instead, it endorsed a total allowable catch of 22,000 tonnes for next year.

The commissions's own scientists had recommended a catch ranging from 8,500 to 15,000 tonnes per year, warning there were real risks of the fishery collapsing otherwise. The scientists also urged a seasonal closure during the fragile spawning months of May and June, while today's outcome allows industrial fishing in practice up to 20 June.

Bluefin tuna
Bluefin tuna
Bluefin tuna. © M San Felix
"This is not a decision, it is a disgrace which leaves WWF little choice but to look elsewhere to save this fishery from itself," said Dr Sergi Tudela, head of WWF Mediterranean's fisheries programme, speaking from Marrakech.

"Any alternative is preferable to an organisation which boasts of its respect for science but where in a decade catches have gone from twice to four times the scientific recommendations, with massive legal and illegal overfishing. It is clear that the only thing to slow the fishery with ICCAT at the helm is running out of fish."

The European Union was the driving force behind today's decision, supported by Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria and later joined by Japan.

Japan had initially been party to a US, Canada, Mexico, Norway, Iceland and Brazil proposal, supported by a brace of developing nations, to fix the allowed catch at the upper levels recommended by scientists and closing the fishery for the full spawning period. Libya, host of the most important tuna fishing area in the Mediterranean, walked out of the meeting condemning ICCAT.

The debate has been marred by allegations of the European Commission threatening developing state members with trade retaliations should they support lower catch limits and extended closed seasons, with the names of some nations appearing and disappearing from the more scientifically-based proposals.

"ICCAT's string of successive failures leaves us little option now but to seek effective remedies through trade measures and extending the boycott of retailers, restaurants, chefs and consumers," Dr Tudela said.

WWF has been urging a suspension of the out-of-control fishery, an option endorsed by the recent World Conservation Congress and recommended by the commissions's own internal high-level review.

Trade controls

The world's largest bluefin tuna trader, Mitsubishi, signalled earlier in November that it would "reassess" its "involvement in this business" should ICCAT continue to be unable to sustainably manage the fishery.

"WWF will also actively push for a listing under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in the hope that stringent trade controls tied explicitly to the survival of the species will turn around the half-hearted attempt at fisheries management shown here by ICCAT and especially its European contingent."

CITES next meets in Doha in January 2010 with submissions on listings required by August 2009.

"Today's outcome is a recipe for economic as well as biological bankruptcy with the European Union squarely to blame," said Dr Tudela. "Bluefin consumption in the main consumer market of Japan is expected to drop from 18,000 tonnes due to the economic crisis, with around 30,000 tonnes of frozen bluefin already in Hong Kong and Japan, and additional unknown amounts in other Asian countries and in freezer ships.

"Our industry sources also tell us that there are 7,000 tonnes of illegally fished tuna in fattening cages across the Mediterranean that nobody wants to buy."

The moratorium option, which the scientific panel said would lead to the quickest recovery in bluefin stock and the best future prospects for fulfilling ICCAT's charter of delivering a long-term sustainable fishery, was not even given consideration by the commission in Marrakech despite increasing support for this option from European fishermen.

Source: WWF