Political infighting threatens survival of the bluefin tuna

The bluefin tuna is one of the ocean's most magnificent creatures, a half-tonne predator that swims at 40mph. But political scheming in Brussels may condemn it to death


The last chance to save one of the most majestic fish in the sea is on the verge of collapse because of political jockeying in Europe.

A proposal to ban the sale of bluefin tuna is being fiercely opposed by Malta, the capital of the lucrative global business, and by its representative in Brussels, the fisheries commissioner, Joe Borg.

Spain and Italy are also believed to be resisting an application to bar trade in bluefin under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which would cut off exports to the main market, Japan.

The European Commission will decide next week whether the EU will submit the application to a Cites committee meeting in March.

Conservationists fear that support from Britain, France and other northerly European nations for decisive action is wavering amid the objections.

The Commission is divided, with Brussels sources saying Mr Borg is fighting his environment counterpart, Stavros Dimas, who supports a ban.

Japan has also been lobbying all EU states, telling them that the management of the stock is improving.

Britain describes Japan's approach as "not unexpected", though conservationists accuse Japan of interfering in the EU's internal decision-making. Such has been the controversy that the European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, is set to take charge of the issue at his cabinet meeting on Thursday.

Groups such as WWF and Greenpeace fear that negotiations to break the deadlock may result in a compromise of the Cites Appendix II listing, which would allow a limited trade that would be used to launder vast quantities of illegally-caught fish. A single bluefin tuna can fetch tens of thousands of pounds on Tokyo's fish markets, making the trade highly valuable for trawlers and ranches that fatten young specimens.

Spotter planes are illegally used to find the creatures in the sea and organised crime in Italy is believed to play a role in illegal "pirate" fishing. The WWF says that breeding stocks of bluefin tuna will disappear within two years at current rates of fishing, although some fear that given the small size of bluefins on the Tokyo fish markets, it may have already collapsed.

In a last-ditch rescue mission this summer, the Mediterranean principality of Monaco suggested bypassing the discredited fisheries body in charge of bluefin, the International Council for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (Iccat), by appealing to Cites for an outright ban.

Despite owning a significant bluefin fleet, France threw its weight behind the plan, to the surprise of conservationists. President Nicolas Sarkozy said that decades of over-fishing would have to end. Britain, Germany and other mostly northerly European states with direct financial interest in the fish also expressed support for a ban.

On reaching a final position, the EU's 27 member states will vote as a bloc among the 175-nation meeting of Cites in Doha, Qatar, in March. Other countries are likely to heed Europe's views, given the bluefin is fished in its waters. Such high stakes have led to tense wrangles in Brussels, with commissioners Dimas and Borg again failing to reach agreement in a face-to-face meeting yesterday.

Some conservationists wonder whether Mr Borg may have been influenced by the bluefin tuna industry in Malta, which employs 1,000 of the country's 400,000 citizens and is worth €100m (£87m) a year.

Mr Borg, who will seek Malta's re-appointment to his Commission post in the next month, indicated that he preferred waiting for an update on a rescue plan from Iccat after its next meeting, which would be after the Cites deadline for applications for a ban.

Aaron McLoughlin, the WWF fisheries representative in Brussels, said: "As ever with commissioners, whatever happens at home always grabs special attention. It's a real issue for him, just like the German commissioner will have an interest in all car matters."

Mr Borg's spokeswoman, Nathalie Charbonneau, said any suggestion that he had been influenced by the Maltese government was "false and wrong".

The actors Stephen Fry, Colin Firth and Emilia Fox have written to Mr Barroso, urging him to resist a compromise. Attention on overfishing has intensified since the release this year of the film The End of the Line.

Greenpeace's fish campaigner, Willie Mackenzie, said: "There's incontrovertible scientific proof that the stocks are collapsing. We understand the vast majority of the Commission thinks a ban is the right way to go – scientifically it's the only way to go but politically there's a hurdle to get over."

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent