Japan's insatiable appetite for sushi has spawned a booming business of tuna-fattening throughout the Mediterranean that is pushing the mighty Atlantic bluefin tuna to the brink of extinction, conservationists have warned.
The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) is calling for curbs to be imposed urgently to prevent the collapse of stocks. A lucrative industry has developed based on catching shoals of migrating bluefin tuna, then putting them in offshore cages to fatten them on smaller fish before exporting them to Japan for sushi.
Spain leads this maritime bonanza, with the biggest tuna-fattening operation in the world off the south-east coast near Murcia, but Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia are joining in.
But it is in Spain where a handful of big companies are misusing EU funds, under-reporting their catch, disrupting the ecological balance of the western Mediterranean and depriving local rod-and-line anglers of a livelihood that dates from Roman times, the WWF claims.
"Bluefin tuna is the new foie gras of the Mediterranean, resulting in a real gold rush in the region," Paolo Guglielmi, a spokesman for the WWF, said. "If nothing is done, wild bluefin tuna will completely disappear from the Mediterranean sea, perhaps with no possibility of rebuilding stocks."
"There are powerful economic interests at stake," said Sergi Tudela, fisheries officer at the WWF Mediterranean programme office. "WWF is urging the European Union to push for strict regulations of this unregulated activity and, meanwhile, to issue a moratorium on the development of new tuna farms in the Mediterranean."
Last week, a boat carrying WWF members was rammed by tuna farm workers off the coast of Cartagena in Spain, in what the campaign members denounced to police as an "outrageous episode". The WWF team said when it approached the tuna farms for film footage and photographs, tuna workers warned them off, then deliberately crashed into them.
"These companies receive EU funds to promote aquaculture but these are not real farms, they don't breed and rear fish in captivity, they pen up declining stocks of wild fish that migrate to the Mediterranean every summer," said Jose Luis Garcia, who is responsible for the WWF's marine programme. "They are overfishing the bluefin tuna. Stocks have fallen 20 per cent in the last five years."
The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), which regulates the sector, allocates a quota of 20,000 tons for the EU as a whole, of which Spain accounts for 11,000, Mr Garcia said. Even the Commission's own reports concede that Spain's real catch is probably higher than reported.
The concentration of huge pens off the Spanish coastal regions of Murcia and Catalonia is also disrupting the habitat of other endangered species along the shoreline, especially the bottlenose dolphin and the loggerhead turtle, according to Mr Garcia.
In addition, stocks in the Mediterranean of anchovies and sardines, which are used as feed for the penned bluefin tuna – handsome but voracious monsters that can grow up to three metres long – are also being seriously depleted and need to be protected, Mr Garcia said.
"We urge the EU and the Catalan and Murcian regional governments to stop the establishment of new farms, and we are campaigning for the ICCAT to draw up tighter regulations at its meeting in Bilbao in November," he added.