Is this the end of the bluefin tuna?

The most expensive fish in the sea – celebrated by Homer, venerated by the Japanese – may not survive an EU decision to maintain catch quotas in defiance of scientists, reports Michael McCarthy

A A A

They are among the most legendary and majestic fish in the sea – and beyond doubt the most valuable. A decision taken this week, however, means that the bluefin tuna of the Mediterranean are probably now also the most endangered fish in the sea, with overfishing pushing the stock towards the brink of collapse.

Celebrated since the time of Homer, the mighty and meaty bluefin these days have ardent admirers on the other side of the world: the Japanese, who prize them above all other fish for use in sushi and sashimi. But so great is the Japanese demand that it is driving catches well beyond what scientists consider to be safe limits and towards commercial extinction.

Earlier this week, however, a vital opportunity to pull the bluefin back from the brink was missed when the official body charged with preventing the stock from collapsing agreed to allow catch quotas for 2009 far higher than its own scientists recommended.

Amid a chorus of protests and dismay from conservationists, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, endorsed a total allowable catch (TAC) of 22,000 tonnes for next year – while ICCAT's own scientists had recommended a TAC 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, but the meeting agreed to allow industrial fishing up to 20 June.

The decision, which was branded "a disgrace" by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and fiercely attacked by other conservation bodies, was driven by the European Union, amid allegations that the EU had threatened developing nations with trade sanctions if they supported lower catch limits and extended closed seasons. During the meeting, the names of some countries appeared and disappeared from the more scientifically based proposals.

The EU is representing the interests of several countries who have big fishing fleets hunting the multi-million-dollar bonanza that the annual catch represents. In the lead are the French, with about 600 tuna boats, followed by the Italians, who have a fleet of about 200 vessels. It is thought that half the Italian fleet may be unlicensed boats, especially those from Calabria in southern Italy, and Sicily, where Mafia connections to some of the fishing operations are strongly suspected. Algeria, Croatia, Greece, Libya, Malta, Spain, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey are other countries with tuna fishing fleets.

The hunt is based around the spawning habits of a specific subspecies of the bluefin tuna, the eastern Atlantic bluefin, which swims every May from the Atlantic, where it spends the winter, through the Straits of Gibraltar to spawn in June and July in the warmer waters of the Mediterranean. The migration takes place in huge schools of fish which, in the past, were miles wide and millions strong – and even with today's depleted numbers it can still be a remarkable spectacle. Spawning sites, where the females releases millions of eggs at night, are scattered from one end of the Mediterranean to the other.

Intercepting the huge shoals has been done for thousands of years but, in recent years, advances in fishing technology, as well as demand, have made the contest entirely one-sided. ICATT has established rules for the fishery but conservationists claim they are being consistently broken by the hunters. For example, the use of spotter aircraft to locate the tuna shoals has been banned in the month of June since 2001 but such spotter planes have been seen operating from Libya, Malta and Italy. Similarly, drift nets have also been banned but Italian fishermen have been found to be using them.

But the most serious and frequent malpractice is exceeding catch quota limits, which is thought to happen with all countries involved in the fishery. For example, the French this year had a quota of 4,300 tonnes but are thought to have caught about 7,000 tonnes. Most of the catching is done with purse-seines, which are very large bag-like nets capable of scooping up an entire tuna school. The purse-seines allow the tuna to be taken alive and transported to tuna ranches – there are about 40 scattered about the Mediterranean – where they are fattened for the Japanese market. The greater the fat content of the fish, the higher the price the Japanese will pay. They are slaughtered in the autumn and freighted to Japan.

The tuna ranching is driven by Japanese demand, which in turn, say conservationists, is driving the overfishing. The meeting at Marrakech had a chance to bring the fishery back under control, but the decision, taken by politicians with powerful fishing groups in their constituencies, went the other way. It was fiercely attacked by groups such as WWF. "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 the WWF's Mediterranean fisheries programme.

The Green Party group in the European Parliament also lashed out at the decision. "The ICCAT quotas are a death sentence for the bluefin tuna," said the Green Party MEP Raül Romeva, who attended the meeting. "It is completely unacceptable that the body responsible for managing stocks has set a TAC that is 50 per cent higher than the scientific advice. The EU had pressed for even higher catches. It is morally bankrupt for [the EU Fisheries] Commissioner Joe Borg to make noises about the need to conserve bluefin tuna before the ICCAT meeting, when the European community then proceeds to use strong-arm, bullying tactics to try to impose a maximum total catch two-thirds higher than the scientific advice.

"The EU has bankrolled the decimation of bluefin stocks by subsidising the new large fishing vessels that are responsible for overfishing, to the detriment of certain traditional fishing fleets. When the stocks are gone, the same ship owners who lobbied to overexploit bluefin tuna will come cap in hand for more EU money. This must not be allowed to happen."

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice