EU orders industrial tuna fishing ban until year’s end

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In the wake of huge depletion in stocks of bluefin tuna, EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki decided yesterday (9 June) to ban large-scale bluefin tuna fishing in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic. The ban has already come into effect.

The ban will apply until the end of the 2010 fishing season, explained European Commission spokesman Oliver Drewes.

The ban applies to ships with large fishing nets, called purse seines, that hang vertically in the water with weights along the bottom edge and floats along the top, making it easier to make quick, big catches.

The fishing season started on 15 May and was due to last until 15 June.

Damanaki decided to order the purse seiners back to port after data from the Commission's in-house control room and inspectors from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) showed that the seiners were about to reach their 2010 quotas.

According to Commission's scientific advice, seiners would have overfished by today (10 June), Drewes said, explaining that the decision to close the season for industrial tuna fishing was taken to prevent overfishing.

Major tuna fishing countries, including France, Spain and Greece, have been informed of the decision.

Greenpeace stressed that the Mediterranean bluefin season, which started on 15 May, should not have been opened in the first place.

According to the NGO, many of the fish caught this year are currently being transported to large fattening farms, where they will be fed before they are killed and sold on the lucrative Japanese market.

"Non-European ships flying flags from countries like Turkey and Libya are expected to still be fishing after the end of the EU fishing season," it said, citing estimates according to which over 80% of the bluefin tuna have already been taken from the world's waters and the species could disappear if fishing is not halted immediately.

Mourad Kahoul, president of the Union of Mediterranean Tuna (STM), told French press agency AFP that French fishermen would challenge the ban, as eight of the 17 French ships had so far caught only 62% of their allowed quota.

He said the ships had been ordered to continue their activity – thus implicitly threatening the EU executive with conflict unless the ships that have not yet reached their quota are allowed to continue fishing.

International marine conservation organisation Oceana welcomed Commissioner Damanaki's move, but said that the anticipated purse seine fishery closure "clearly proves the fleet's overcapacity and its necessary prohibition until stocks recover".

Total allowable catches (TACs) are EU catch limits set annually by fisheries ministers for most significant commercial fish stocks in the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the North-East Atlantic (including the North Sea). The limits are set at the Commission's instigation on the basis of scientific advice.

Fisheries in the Mediterranean are not managed by catch limits, except for bluefin tuna, the 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).

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