Mediterranean bluefin tuna 'close to extinction'

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The Independent Online

Stocks of tuna in the Mediterranean may be on the point of collapse, the environmentalist group Greenpeace has warned.

A month-long voyage of investigation in the bluefin tuna fishing grounds by the Greenpeace vessel Esperanza has found a catastrophic shortage of the giant fish. "The crews of fishing vessels, scientists and our own observations are all now pointing in the same disturbing direction," said François Provost of Greenpeace France. "We spent a week with the French and Spanish fleets around the Balearic islands. They did not catch a single tuna. It is the same story to the north of Egypt. Some fish are being found to the south of Turkey but they are small. A catastrophe is in the making."

Greenpeace, the Worldwide Fund for Nature and other pressure groups have been warning for years that intensive demand from Japan could rapidly reduce stocks of Mediterranean bluefin tuna to the same unsustainable levels as their cousins in the Atlantic and the Pacific.

The Esperanza voyage - and leaks from scientific reports - suggest that the Mediterranean bluefin may now be close to the point of no return. Greenpeace called for all tuna fishing in the Mediterranean to be halted until more drastic controls are in place.

There have been reports that the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat), based in Madrid, is also preparing to call for a drastic reduction in tuna fishing in the Mediterranean within the next few weeks. Leaks from within Iccat on the state of tuna stocks are "very alarming", M. Provost said. "A month ago we asked the question: Where have all the tuna gone? Well, now we know the answer - we may be witnessing the collapse of the bluefin tuna stock from the Mediterranean Sea."

An official at Iccat said yesterday, however, that the 42-nation organisation cannot, under the terms of its charter, do anything until its next annual meeting in November.Sebastian Losada, of Greenpeace Spain, said: "Massive overfishing over the past decade by greedy companies has brought about this crisis. Iccat has proved to be completely unable to enforce the rules."

In May, Greenpeace and the WWF published a joint report which suggested that 45,000 tons of tuna were taken from the Mediterranean in each of the past two years. The official quota is 29,000 tons. Ninety per cent of the Mediterranean tuna goes to Japan, which is blamed by environmental groups for destroying tuna stocks in the Pacific and west Atlantic.

Greenpeace also claimed yesterday that it had observed 11 Japanese long-line boats, fishing illegally off Sicily early this month. The Japanese boats have licences to fish in the Mediterranean but the long-line fishery is supposed to be closed in June. Part of the problem is so-called tuna ranching, which Iccat finds difficult to police. Schools of tuna are spotted by planes, trapped alive in purse seine nets, towed ashore, fattened for several months in cages, killed, frozen and flown to Japan.

The bluefin is the largest of the 10 tuna species - and the most prized by the Japanese. The western Atlantic, or American, fishery was closed through over-fishing in 1998 and has not yet recovered. Eastern Atlantic stocks are also desperately low.