EU researchers make tuna stock breakthrough

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After fears of a "mackerel war" were rekindled on Tuesday (24 August), a timely discovery by EU researchers could ease future fisheries spats as a natural method for extracting mass quantities of bluefin tuna eggs has been found, the European Commission announced yesterday (25 August).

The discovery was made possible following three years' work by biologists at SELFDOTT, a research project funded by the European Union to the tune of €2.98 million and co-ordinated by the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO).

The tuna in the study were able to adapt to favourable breeding conditions after three years of domestication, producing a total of 10 million eggs in a single day and potentially easing pressure on endangered wild stocks.

Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn welcomed the project's findings as a contribution to solving what is known as a global problem.

"If the results of this research can ultimately be commercialised, it can improve food supplies and contribute to economic growth and employment while also helping to ensure a sustainable management of bluefin tuna," she said.

Catch limits are voted upon on an annual basis by EU-27 fisheries ministers and have historically been subject to major haggling between countries, for example during the 'cod wars' between Iceland and the UK in the 1970s.

Bluefin tuna fishing is currently banned in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic after Commission official Kenneth Patterson announced in May this year that 60-70% of stocks are still at risk of being depleted.

The EU had earlier this year had a proposal for the banning of Atlantic bluefin tuna fishing until stocks recovered rejected at the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in March.

According to the Pew Environment Group, an NGO, a third of EU fisheries subsidies distributed between 2000 and 2006 meant to progress fleet capacity reduction were instead spent on building new ships, thereby increasing pressure on declining stocks, with Spain being the largest culprit.

The SELFDOTT team will now study the embryonic and larval development of the tuna eggs, however, seeking to improve their chances of survival and growth and produce guidelines for the mass-breeding of the species and soothe diplomatic tensions over fisheries, an issue currently hampering Iceland's accession to the EU.

Fisheries in the Mediterranean are not managed by catch limits, except for bluefin tuna, the Total Allowable Catches (TAC) of which is decided annually by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) for the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The TAC is then distributed among ICCAT members, including the EU.

While the EU-27 have agreed that fish stocks should only be exploited insofar as they can deliver the largest possible sustainable catch, the Commission acknowledges that "most stocks are still overfished," some by up to 80%.

The EU executive has admitted that "the state of EU fish stocks continues to be dire," conceding that total allowable catches, or TACs, continue to be set "well above the level which scientists consider sustainable" (EURACTIV 25/06/09).

In 2008, the European Commission launched a review of the Common Fisheries Policy with the aim of achieving a "major" overhaul of the policy by 2012 (EURACTIV 18/09/08).

  • June-July 2010: Commission to get new scientific advice on Total Allowable Catches.
  • Oct. 2010: Commission to publish proposals on quota levels in 2011.
  • By end 2010: Vote in Council of Ministers.

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