Biodiversity, Environment, Europe, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT: Europe Casts a Net for Dying Fish

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Oct 28 2008 (IPS) - The European Union has resisted calls for a ban on fishing for bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean despite warning signs that the species is being exploited towards extinction.

Stocks of bluefin tuna in European waters have fallen by 90 percent since the 1970s. After many years when large vessels fished relentlessly for this variety – considered a delicacy by sushi enthusiasts – a recent scientific report branded marine management in the Mediterranean an “international disgrace”.

The study carried out at the request of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICATT) noted that the 61,000 tonnes of tuna taken from the Mediterranean during 2007 was twice the amount permitted by law and four times the level that could be regarded as ecologically sustainable.

Nonetheless, the EU’s marine ministers decided against closing the fishery for bluefin tuna when they met in Luxembourg Oct. 27-28. Instead, they have simply asked the European Commission to seek greater protection of this stock when ICATT, a grouping of 46 countries, meets in Marrakech, Morocco, next month.

The Union’s position has been condemned by environmental activists.

“The current situation with this fishery is out of control,” said Sergi Tudela from the Spanish branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). “We need its immediate closure until the situation is brought under control.”

Calls for a ban on fishing for bluefin tuna have won support from unlikely quarters. Spain, which has the largest fleet in the EU, and Japan, where tuna is much coveted for its use in sushi, both supported a motion calling for the Mediterranean fishery to be closed when it was debated at the World Conservation Congress, which bands together governments and ecological organisations, in Barcelona during September.

But Italy and France have been resisting calls for a ban. The Rome government has been threatening legal action against a decision by the European Commission to end the season for bluefin tuna fishing earlier than usual this year because catch quotas were exceeded. The consequent temporary closure of this fishery came into effect in June. It affects six EU countries: Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Malta.

Joe Borg, the European commissioner for fisheries, has accused the French authorities of “countless failures” to ensure that rules covering bluefin tuna are enforced, stating that he had evidence of French vessels deliberately under-reporting their catch.

A more recent WWF study found that Italy overshot the quota allocated to it for 2007 by 1,653 tonnes. This was more than five times the overshoot officially reported by Rome.

The report also alleged that Italy is a centre for the use of planes by fishery companies to spot shoals of bluefin tuna. This is despite a 2006 ban on use of spotter planes for this purpose.

Fisheries ministers have also refused to halt deep-sea fishing in spite of mounting concern that this practice could be causing irreparable harm to fragile ecosystems.

Rather than ending such fisheries, quotas for the black scabbardfish are to be cut by 10 percent for 2009 compared to last year’s level. The limit for the roundnose grenadier will be cut by 30 percent. Fishing for orange roughy – an endangered species also known as deep-sea perch – is to end from 2010, while the direct targeting of many varieties of sharks is to end. Some capture of sharks as a result of unintended ‘bycatch’ will nonetheless be allowed.

Lists compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) show that one-third of the 135 species of sharks and rays found in European waters are endangered.

The organisation Oceana has complained that most of Europe’s shark fishing continues without regulation. An EU ban on shark finning (the practice of cutting off a shark’s fins and throwing the body back into the sea) is often flouted, it added.

Xavier Pastor, Oceana’s director in Madrid, said that the situation of species found in deep waters is especially sensitive as they tend to reproduce slowly. “A lot of sharks and other deep-sea species are caught as bycatch for fisheries addressed to other species.”

Saskia Richartz, a campaigner on ocean policy with Greenpeace, has expressed doubts that deep-sea fishing can be both ecologically sustainable and financially viable.

“Given the longevity and low reproductive rate of deep-sea fish, fishing for deep-sea fish is like hunting for elephants as if they were rabbits,” she said.

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