EU mulls ban on tuna as stocks near collapse

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The EU and its member states have made separate moves recently to tighten up controls against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. They are set to meet this week to decide whether to support a ban on bluefin tuna, as scientists warn of a looming collapse in fish stocks.

A draft document, prepared by the European Commission’s environment directorate, outlines recommendations for listing bluefin tuna on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and temporarily bans all international trade of the species. 

“From a scientific and technical point of view, the criteria for the listing of Atlantic bluefin tuna [as an endangered species] appear to be met,” claims the draft, seen by the Financial Times newspaper. “There is no doubt about the link between international trade and overexploitation of the species.” 

Temporary bans have been imposed by the Commission before, in 2007 and 2008, when it stated there was a need to protect tuna as a “fragile resource,” following “substantial overfishing by the EU fleet in 2007”. 

A meeting of the EU’s fisheries and environment commissioners on Friday (28 August) produced no agreement on whether the Commission should support the proposed ban. Following on from this, the 27 EU commissioners will decide this week whether to support a call for bluefin tuna to be listed on CITES, with an announcement expected by Wednesday 9 September.

Monaco became the first country in the world to stop the sale of bluefin tuna and is sponsoring the proposed ban on the species. Several other European states, including the UK, the Netherlands, France and Germany, have announced they would support such a ban and are encouraged by lobbying from environmental groups. 

Those EU countries most opposed to the ban are Spain, Italy and Malta, all of whom have large fishing fleets.

United Nations agreement on port state measures 

In a related move, the European Commission welcomed the establishment of an international agreement at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) last Friday on port state measures as part of the global fight against IUU fishing. 

The new FAO agreement covers ports in all states around the world, setting minimum standards which include: “Prior notification by the flag state to confirm the legality of the catches held onboard before a vessel is granted access to port facilities, procedures for inspection of foreign vessels when at port [and] a legal basis for denying IUU-listed vessels access to port facilities.” 

The Commission believes there were “serious control and enforcement deficiencies detected in all member states involved in the [tuna] fishery” in 2007, and that these were an important contributing factor to the present dire state of tuna stocks in the Atlantic and EU waters. 

On the issue of food security, the FAO estimates that between 15 and 20% of all animal proteins come from aquatic animals, and of the 30 states most dependent on fish as a protein source, 26 are developing countries. 

CITES contracting parties will meet in Doha, Qatar on 13-25 March 2010, but proposals need to be submitted by 17 October 2009 to be eligible for consideration at the Conference of the Parties. 

French President Nicolas Sarkozy came out vocally in favour of the ban on bluefin tuna this summer, declaring: "Ours is the last generation with the ability to take action before it's too late - we must protect marine resources now, in order to fish better in future. We owe this to fishermen, and we owe it to future generations."

Saskia Richartz, EU ocean policy director at Greenpeace, hailed the Commission's initiative as a breakthrough. "For the EU, which includes many of the main fishing nations, to recognise that bluefin tuna is endangered is a major milestone in preventing the imminent collapse of this species." 

"It would be scandalous if the European Commission were to allow the region's most emblematic marine species associated with a thousand-year-old fishing tradition to go extinct on its watch," argues Tony Long, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s European Policy Office in Brussels. 

European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Joe Borg was pleased with the agreement on IUU fishing: "This is very good news for honest fishermen everywhere and very bad news for all those who continue to plunder the sea by taking advantage of lax control measures and weak sanctions to conceal their illegal activities."

"By strengthening the power to act of all states which provide port facilities to foreign vessels, the international community has closed a major loophole. Ports of convenience cannot be tolerated." 

The Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs believes, "IUU fishing has been identified as a major threat to fisheries conservation and marine biodiversity. It can lead to a collapse of a fishery, which in turn may cause adverse consequences for the livelihood of people depending on it." 

"The failure of states to effectively control the fishing operations of vessels flying their flags is the core of the problem of IUU fishing," the ministry continues. "Reliance on the implementation of flag state duties to prevent IUU fishing has proved to be insufficient, and enhanced port State control is thus crucial in combating IUU fishing." 

Some major EU retailers of fish are offering greater support for action on IUU fishing. Marks & Spencer (UK) have committed to "not selling fish that comes from illegal, unregulated or unreported fishing or that is endangered". Another UK retailer, Sainbury's, has made a commitment to source all its wild-caught fish from sustainable sources by 2010. 

The European Commission launched a massive review of its fisheries policy in September last year, saying "major reform" would be proposed by 2012 at the latest (EURACTIV 18/09/08). 

A report by Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg outlined various issues to be tackled if fishing in EU waters is to become truly sustainable, including: 

  • Fleet overcapacity: EU fishing boats are currently capable of catching "two to three times" the maximum sustainable yield. 
  • Accountability: Fishermen "must be made responsible and accountable for the sustainable use of a public resource". 
  • Ecological sustainability must be prioritised over economic and social sustainability. 
  • Simplification: EU-level regulation must be simplified and regional management solutions encouraged wherever possible. 

The proposals were broadly backed by EU fisheries ministers in September last year (EURACTIV 30/09/08). 

Earlier in June, EU ministers endorsed a Commission proposal to combat illegal fishing and protect vulnerable marine ecosystems by unanimously backing two new regulations (EURACTIV 26/06/08). 

  • 17 Oct.: Deadline for submission of proposals for species to be CITES listed.
  • 13-25 March: CITES contracting parties will meet in Doha, Qatar.
  • 2010: Deadline for Commission action plan to halt EU biodiversity loss.
  • 2012: Deadline for review and reform of EU's Common Fisheries Policy.

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