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Sushi wars: fight looms over bluefin tuna

Tuna: if it's affordable, it's not bluefin
Paris (AFP) Nov 14, 2010 - Here's a handy rule-of-thumb for conservation-minded sushi lovers worried about accidentally eating bluefin tuna: if it's not wildly expensive, its not bluefin. In Japan, which consumes 80 percent of the Atlantic bluefin catch every year, a single, bite-sized morsel can easily set you back 20 euros (28 dollars). Five main species of tuna make up the annual worldwide catch of 4.0 to 4.5 million tonnes, and bluefin -- Thunnus thynnus -- is less than one percent of the total, some 24,000 tonnes in 2008. Chances are that the raw tuna in your 10-euro (14-dollar) lunch platter, whether in London, Hong Kong, New York or Sydney, is either yellowfin (Thunnus albacares) or bigeye (Thunnus obesus). They make up 24 and 10 percent of the global tuna market respectively. The most common "chicken of the sea" is not, strictly speaking, even a member of the Thunnus family: skipjack, or Katsuwonus pelamis, accounts for 60 percent of all tuna caught each year, some 2.41 million tonnes.

A lot of it winds up in tins, destined for the US and British markets, along with Europe, Australia and Japan. Much Thunnus alalunga, better known as albacore, is also destined for supermarket shelves. Taking all five species together, half the yearly haul is caught in the western Pacific, a quarter in the Indian Ocean, 16 percent in the eastern Pacific and nine percent in the Atlantic. Japan reels in the biggest catch, more than half-a-million tonnes each year, followed closed by Taiwan. Indonesia is in third place with nearly 350,000 tonnes, followed by the Philippines, Spain, Korea and Papua New Guinea, which all catch between 200,000 and 300,000 tonnes of tuna annually.

France, with a large fleet in the Indian Ocean, is in eighth place with about 180,000 tonnes. More than 80 percent of the 500,000-tonne market for fish consumed raw is in Japan, served as is (sashimi) or wrapped in seaweed and with rice (sushi). Americans have also acquired a taste for uncooked fish, accounting for nine percent, followed by Korea, China, the European Union and Taiwan. Conservationists caution that the ravenous global appetite for tuna could push other species besides bluefin into dangerous waters, driving up prices and forcing the introduction of quotas to ensure sustainability. In 1950, the global fishery caught only 700,000 tonnes of the five main species. In 1970 that figure rose to 1.1 million, in 1990 to 2.9 million, and in 2008 to about 4.2 million. "Scientists estimate that, at the current rate, we will virtually empty the seas of big fish by 2030," said Sue Lieberman, policy director for the Washington-based Pew Environment Group.
by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) Nov 14, 2010
Nations gather this week to decide how many Atlantic bluefin tuna they can extract from the sea without destroying the multi-billion dollar business that keeps Japan supplied in gourmet sushi and sashimi.

The highly charged debate pits dug-in economic interests against mounting concern that the gleaming, fatty fish is teetering close to the edge of viability.

Industrial-scale fishing in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic over the last four decades has depleted stocks by 85 percent, scientists say.

The reason is not hard to find: a single specimen of Thunnus thynnus, which can grow to two metres (six feet) and weigh 400 kilos (900 pounds), can fetch over 100,000 euros (137,00 dollars) in Japanese wholesale markets.

Conservationists warn that stocks will collapse unless the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), meeting in Paris for ten days from Wednesday, suspends or sharply reduces catches long enough for the species to recover.

The total catch limit, distributed mainly among six Mediterranean rim nations dominated by France, Spain and Italy, was 13,500 tonnes in 2010.

They also say the 48-nation body is riddled with fraud, a claim bolstered by recent investigative reports and France's admission in 2007 that its catch for that year was more than double the authorized limit.

"There is so much illegal fishing going on that the only responsible thing to do is to suspend the fishery, get it sorted out, and then open it slowly so the species can recover," said Sue Lieberman, policy director for the US-based Pew Environment Group.

Industry representatives, backed by their governments, say ICCAT has cracked down on renegade fishing in the last three years by adding independent on-board inspectors and an improved ship-to-market tracking system.

ICCAT scientists, they point out, recently concluded that a 13,500-tonne annual quota for the period 2011-2013 "will likely allow the stock to increase during that period".

And that would put the species on track for a 60-percent chance of achieving a so-called "maximum sustainable yield" by 2022, they argue.

"That's still a 40-percent chance of failure," countered Chantal Juoanno, French junior minister for ecology.

"If that happens, there are no more tuna, and no more fisheries," she told AFP last week.

Even so, French fisheries minister, Bruno Le Maire, announced later the same day that France favoured rolling over the 2010 quota at least one more year "to guarantee a good balance between resources ... and the interests of fishermen."

The European Union is also beset by the same policy tug-of-war.

Last month EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki proposed to cut the 2011 quota by more than half to 6,000 tonnes, a level consistent with a 97-percent change of sustainability by 2022.

The next day, however, she backtracked after fierce opposition from some member states, calling instead for "a substantial reduction."

The EU has yet to adopt a common position ahead of this week's meeting.

Privately, most green groups are not optimistic that ICCAT will halve next year's catch, much less suspend it entirely.

But other critical conservation measures, they say, may stand a better chance of being adopted.

One is the creation of sanctuaries in the two known spawning grounds for Atlantic bluefin tuna, in the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Mexico.

They also expect ICCAT to tighten data reporting and compliance in order to curtail "illegal, unreported and unregulated" fishing.

"This meeting is a critical test for ICCAT's credibility," commented Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist for the US-based advocacy group Oceana.

Led by Japan -- which consumes 80 percent of the Atlantic bluefin catch -- many ICCAT nations lobbied fiercely earlier this year to reject a ban on international trade under the UN, arguing that ICCAT could manage stocks.

"Now it is up to them to show that they meant it, by actually supporting conservation decisions," Hirshfield said.

Pressure is also building to set catch limits for several species of sharks, some of which have been listed as globally "endangered" and "vulnerable" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Tens of millions of sharks including the mako and the oceanic white tip, are killed every year. They are prized by Chinese gourmets for their fins.

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Environmentalists urge action at tuna talks
Washington (AFP) Nov 11, 2010
Environmentalists on Thursday urged the European Union to lead the way to protect tuna at upcoming talks in Paris, voicing worries about inaction on the lucrative mainstay of sushi. The 48-member International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas meets from November 17 and 27 in the French capital, with the United States and European Union executive arm supporting cuts in catch ... read more

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