Paris (AFP) Nov 27, 2010
As dozens of nations meeting in Paris grope for a way to save the Atlantic bluefin tuna without destroying the billion-dollar industry built on its gleaming back, a question haunts the debate: who's most to blame for driving the species to the brink of collapse?
That bluefin stocks are in bad shape is hard to deny.
Even the Chairman of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), set to announce new catch quotas on Saturday, says the body's management of the fishery -- especially in the Mediterranean -- has been "a disgrace."
Eastern Atlantic bluefin populations are less that 15 percent of their historical high, and only 30 percent of "mass sustainable yield," the theoretical equilibrium between a natural state and commercial fishing.
Some experts worry a tipping point may already have been passed, in part because the average size of the slow-maturing species has dropped below prime spawning age.
"In the late 1990s, 75 percent of all eastern Atlantic bluefin airfreighted to and auctioned in Japan was 120 kilos (265 pounds) or above," said Roberto Mielgo, a Spanish expert.
"In 2008, 2009 and 2010 so far, the ratio is reversed: 75 percent of all fish auctioned are under 120 kilos," added Mielgo, who helped pioneer the use of "tuna farms" in the Mediterranean in the mid-1990s.
How did things get to such a sorry state?
Certainly commercial fishermen must take a large slice of the blame, especially those who systematically cheated on already generous quotas set by ICCAT.
Fraud and under-reporting may have peaked in 2007, when quotas twice the catch level recommended by ICCAT scientists were doubled yet again.
But fault lays more with governments that looked the other way than with the men who took to sea, argues Sue Lieberman, policy director for the Washington-based Pew Environment Group.
"Of course many fishermen cheated. If there's a speed limit but you know that you will never get a ticket, wouldn't you speed?", she said.
"But they are cheating with boats their governments gave them money to build," she added.
Over the last few years, Europe has funnelled tens of millions of euros into expanding and renovating a fleet that was already at overcapacity, adding even more pressure on dwindling stocks.
About 70 percent of the bluefin caught in the Mediterranean are netted by industrial purse seine vessels with vast, sack-like nets that encircle tuna as they gather to spawn.
"Based on the number of vessels in the Mediterranean, they should be fishing 50,000 tonnes," Lieberman said.
ICCAT's 2010 quota was 13,500 tonnes, a number that could shrink further on Saturday.
Conservationists say purse seiners should be banned, and that a sharply reduced catch limit should be handed over to fishermen who use artisanal methods.
Japan -- by far the largest market for the fatty fish -- has also helped drive the bluefin debacle, experts say.
This year, Tokyo refused to accept shipments totalling 3,000 tonnes because of suspect documentation. In Paris, Japanese delegates have lambasted fishing nations that violate strict new reporting rules.
In the past, however, Japan invested heavily in building up the hard-to-monitor purse-seine and ranching system that now threatens stocks. It also remained silent when fraud was most rampant.
ICCAT scientists are generally given credit for doing the best they can under difficult circumstances.
"They have to come up with recommendations using data and assessment methods which are both deficient in major ways," notes statistician and biologist Justin Cooke, who sits on ICCAT's scientific committee.
In the end, consumers must also decide whether they will continue to eat a species to the edge of viability.
Many high-end restaurants in North America and Europe are now "bluefin free", and a growing number of major supermarkets, wholesalers and other businesses have followed suit.
For Mielgo, who has gravitated from industry insider to environmentalist over the last 15 years, "pointing fingers at this stage is useless."
"More than anything, it is the system that is to blame, along with the deeply ingrained idea that the sea is a free-for-all that will offer up fish for ever. It is not," he said.
earlier related report
Hanging in the balance is not only the long-term viability of bluefin stocks, but the credibility of the 48-member body that has, by its own reckoning, done a miserable job of managing them.
"I do hope, and I believe, that ICCAT's 'dark ages' are in the past," said Fabio Hazin, chairman of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.
"Up to 2008, commissioners were not listening to science. It was a disgrace," he said going into the meeting.
In the end, all the haggling over catch limits will come down to a single number.
The fishing industry and the countries that back them are in favour of rolling over the 2010 quota for bluefin tuna caught in the Atlantic and Mediterranean -- 13,500 tonnes -- for another year.
An October report by ICCAT's scientific committee says this would put the species on track for a 60-percent chance of recovering to "maximum sustainable yield" by 2022.
Right now, its population is estimated to be at less than a third of that mark.
Environmentalists, along with some member states and scientists, say a 40-percent chance of failure is too high, and that even this estimate is based on optimistic assumptions and incomplete data.
"We are uncertain about the past, and probably more so about the future," acknowledged Gerald Scott, head of ICCAT's scientific committee.
The United States wants to cut current limits, while the 27-nation European Union is officially calling for a "stable or partially reduced quota."
But the EU is, in fact, sharply divided. While the bloc's major bluefin players -- France, Spain, Italy and Malta -- are pushing for the status quo, the European fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki, backed by Britain, has openly called for a catch limit of 6,000 tonnes.
The end-point numbers floating in the corridors of the closed-door meet Friday ranged between 10,000 and 13,000 tonnes.
France, meanwhile, is lobbying furiously behind the scenes for an amnesty on its "tuna debt", incurred in 2007 when it surpassed a national quota of 5,000 tonnes by more than 100 percent.
Without relief, it's bluefin haul for 2011 will drop from about 2,000 to 500 tonnes, barely enough to keep a couple of commercial vessels busy during the one- or two-month long fishing season.
The ultimate arbiter may be Japan, which consumes more than 80 percent of Atlantic bluefin tuna in the form of gourmet sashimi and sushi costing up to 20 euros (25 dollars) a mouthful in high-end restaurants.
After years of looking the other way, Tokyo is pushing ICCAT to crack down on rampant illegal fishing and tighten compliance measures put in place over the last two years.
"Japan is saying the right things, but has not put its cards on the table yet," said Remi Parmentier, a Madrid-based consultant for the Pew Environment Group.
Tensions this year are running especially high because Mediterranean rim nations -- which account for almost all of the region's authorised catch -- are renegotiating how to divide up the quota.
Libya, Turkey and Egypt are lobbying particularly hard to get larger slices of the shrinking tuna pie, according to sources sitting in on the discussions.
Any gains would likely come at the expense of the EU, whose 2010 allocation was more than 50 percent.
A proposal to create spawning sanctuaries in the Gulf of Mexico and six Mediterranean zones has failed to gain any traction, these sources say.
Industrial-scale fishing during the breeding season has been a major factor in driving down stocks, according to marine biologists.
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