Overfishing could wipe out bluefin tuna under threat in Med

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This has been a catastrophic year for bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean. The enormous fish, which provides the key ingredient for sushi, Japan's unofficial national dish, is being caught in such vast numbers that scientists fear its commercial extinction is looming.

"We have now reached crisis point for bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean, " Sergio Tudela, the fisheries co-ordinator at the conservation charity WWF Mediterranean said. "Levels of fishing are 2.5 times higher than the bluefin populations can sustain. This mismanagement will lead to commercial extinction."

Iccat, the International Commission for the Conservation of the Atlantic Tuna, is holding its annual meeting this week in Seville, Andalusia.The quota it allocated for tuna fishing in 2004 was 32,000 tons. But the WWF, the organisation leading the campaign to alert the world and change the industry's behaviour sounded a sombre note. It estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 tons were caught. Iccat is meant to police the industry but the WWF believes that it is failing in its duties. The 2005 season has not finished and the haul is expected to be greater. Among the most glaring offenders is Libya, a new arrival in the industry. "This country's annual quota is 1,400 tons," Mr Tudela said. "But so far this year, Libya has taken more than 9,000 tons. The illegal catch has been caged in Libya, Tunisia and Spain."

The overfishing is due to the explosive growth of hi-tech tuna ranching. Traditionally, tuna fishermen constructed a series of traps in a channel used by the wild tuna during their migrations, and killed them in the traps. But catches for tuna trappers ­ protesting with WWF supporters outside the Iccat meeting ­ have fallen by 80 per cent in five years as tuna ranchers have scoured the seas.

In tuna ranching, schools of tuna are spotted by planes, caught in purse-seine nets by fast fishing fleets, towed ashore, and fattened in nets anchored offshore until big enough to be slaughtered, blast-frozen and shipped to Japan.

This is so profitable that tuna ranches have sprung up in Turkey, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and Algeria as well as EU countries such as Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Malta, where the practice is well established. Ranchers in EU countries have large EU subsidies.

Paolo Guglielmi, head of the marine unit of the WWF Mediterranean office in Rome, said: "It was clear at the last Iccat meeting in Vancouver that the organisation is totally dominated by commercial companies. It is refusing to take any action to stop the catastrophe."

WWF is now pressing Iccat to cut the season by 15 days, so it starts at the beginning of August instead of in mid-July. Mr Guglielmi said: "This is a simple, serious measure that would reduce the amount of tuna caught, because it is in July that the tuna come together in schools. In August they are harder to locate."

To be adopted, the measure must be proposed by a participating country. Mr Guglielmi said: "The Japan-ese ... have such a huge investment in the industry in the Mediterranean, and they are beginning to realise they could lose it all."