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Warning as bluefin tuna fishing season starts

April 20, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published on FT.com: April 20 2009

Fishing vessels fanned out across the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic this weekend as the bluefin tuna fishing season got underway with environmentalists warning that Japanese and other consumers are hunting the fish to extinction while Italian prosecutors are focused on Mafia drug running twinned with trawling.

Mid-April is the key date for tuna as large migrating shoals become the target for both legal and sophisticated illegal fishers, some using nets miles long and employing banned spotter planes to track the shoals.

The WWF environment group warns in a report that the population of large adult breeding tunas will be wiped out completely in three years unless fishing is stopped completely. The WWF is promoting a campaign to stop consumption. Monaco last month became the world’s first territory to stop the sale of blue-fin tuna with the support of shops and restaurants.

Giant tuna once weighed some 900 kg each. The average fish caught off Libya in 2001 was 124 kg, but over fishing has reduced that to 65 kg last year.

A conference held in Genoa at the weekend by the Slow Food movement and the Pew Environment Group heard that the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has set a quota this season of 22,000 tonnes, flying in the face of advice from its own scientific advisors who had proposed 8,500 to 15,000 tonnes.

An independent panel appointed by ICCAT said management of the bluefin tuna fishery by the commission’s contracting countries was “an international disgrace“. It called for an immediate halt to fishing.

The Genoa conference also heard from Ignazio de Francisci, an anti-mafia prosecutor in Sicily’s Palermo, that mafia gangs are using fishing fleets for drug smuggling, bringing hashish to Europe from Morocco and cocaine from Colombia.

Operation “Igres” revealed how cocaine was shipped from Colombia to Namibia in southwest Africa and then picked up by fishing vessels in a joint operation run by Sicily’s mafia and the ‘Ndrangheta criminal gangs from the Calabria region. When not running drugs, the vessels stick to fishing so as not to raise suspicions.

A report commissioned by Pew on the costs of “illegal, unreported and unregulated” (IUU) fishing in EU fisheries concluded that lost catches will cost EU member states 10bn euros by 2020. It calculated lost stock values at 8bn euros and a loss of 27,000 jobs in fishing and processing industries.

Experts believe that up to 50 per cent of bluefin tuna is caught illegally in the Mediterranean, some fished out of season. Some 90 per cent of Mediterranean bluefin tuna ends up in Japan, much of it as highly prized sashimi, although last year some experts believe that many tonnes of tuna — which are also held in open-sea “ranches” — went unsold, leading some countries to suggest a moratorium.

Japan’s Mitsubishi Corp is the world’s largest tuna trader, according to the Greenpeace environmental group, handling 35 per cent of the world’s trade in sashimi-grade tuna. Mitsubishi subsidiaries are widely involved in operating large refrigerated cargo vessels in the Mediterranean.

The US Commerce Department has listed six countries that tolerate IUU fishing — France, Italy, Libya, Panama, China and Tunisia. The six could face sanctions, including a ban on their vessels entering US ports, unless they address the issues.

The European Commission has drawn up proposals to step up policing of the seas, but environmentalists say enforcement of already inadequate laws is woeful.

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