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
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'