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Feeding frenzy risks wiping out species

August 22, 2009

by Guy Dinmore and Eleonora de Sabata

published on the Financial Times on August 22 2009

06Like bovine torpedoes, a trapped shoal of bluefin tuna, some two metres long, swirl in ever decreasing circles within the “chamber of death” as an intricate maze of nets closes around them.

The signal is given and the mattanza – slaughter – begins. Two dozen Italian fishermen on longboats haul the final section of nets to the surface. In a foaming frenzy of blood and water, the fish are gaffed and dumped into holds packed with ice where they are dispatched with a dagger in the heart.

ph. Guy Dinmore

ph. Guy Dinmore

Within 20 minutes it is all over. The fishermen cross themselves, ending a ritual killing every spring that has sustained isolated communities since Arabs over 1,000 years ago brought their net trapping skills to catch prized tuna migrating to southern Italy from the Atlantic.

Towed ashore, the fish are weighed and tagged under the watchful eye of Coast Guard observers, then quickly gutted and processed in the 355-year-old fishery on the island of Carloforte off southern Sardinia. Soon they are trucked to high-end restaurants in northern Italy.

Carloforte’s fishery is one of three in Italy that still practices the mattanza. There were once dozens until huge commercial fishing fleets began to dominate and overfish an industry worth several hundred million euros a year.

Giuliano Greco, whose family has run the fishery for 150 years, wonders what the future has in store for his small operation – which, he stresses, despite the gore of its swift brutality, is environmentally sustainable. Few other fish – mostly sunfish and one or two swordfish – are also caught in the maze, while smaller tuna escape or are released.

The bluefin tuna lies at the centre of a highly complex maze of competing interests – from the Japanese market that buys some 90 per cent of Mediterranean tuna and dictates prices, big European fishing companies supplying them, environmentalists who warn they are close to extinction, scientists who lack reliable data, governments under pressure from all sides, and even the hidden hand of the Mafia.

“It is all a big mess,” admits Mr Greco.

He questions whether the system of quotas agreed by Iccat, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, can work. He believes up to 90 per cent of Italian producers as well as other European fishers do not declare all their catch, that the “Libyans are impossible to check” and that much illegal fishing continues outside the permissible season from mid-April to mid-June.

Experts say the growing practice of storing caught tuna in sea “ranches” for fattening also elude or distort statistics.

Although Mr Greco concedes the average weight of his tuna has declined dramatically – according to a Cagliari University study from about 120 kg in 1991 to 60 kg – he strongly contests the assertion by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that the bluefin tuna reproductive stock will be wiped out within three years.

Waging an aggressive campaign, WWF, backed by Greenpeace which has its Rainbow Warrior patrolling for illegal fishers, has pushed for the bluefin tuna to be listed under appendix one of the CITES Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

In theory this would end international trade in what is prized Japanese sushi, but not stop domestic consumption. Since prices in Japan have collapsed – mainly because of the financial crisis and an overhang of frozen stocks – it is not clear how big an impact the ban would have.

Monaco, which has no fishing fleet, will soon formally propose the listing, to be considered by CITES contracting parties at their next meeting in March 2010. Monaco’s restaurants have already agreed to stop serving bluefin tuna.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, normally supportive of his fishing industry, delighted environmentalists in pledging France’s support for the ban. Germany, the Netherlands and the UK agree.

Doubts remain, however. One advisor to Iccat, who asked not to be named, suspects Mr Sarkozy is playing politics, believing inclusion on CITES will eventually be blocked.

Italy’s position is crucial. It enjoys a 2009 quota of 3,176 tonnes for bluefin tuna out of an EU total of 12,406 tonnes and a Mediterranean total of 22,000 shared by countries as far away as Japan and South Korea. (Fixed trap fisheries like Mr Greco’s in Italy have a quota of just 146 tonnes).

Antonio Buonfiglio, under-secretary for fish in the agriculture ministry, has trumped Mr Sarkozy. He told the FT that Italy would support a complete moratorium on bluefin tuna fishing for two or three years but only if evidence demonstrated that the fish really were endangered.

“Tuna, which are still caught by the million, are not the Siberian tiger or panda,” he added.

Meanwhile Italy, which like the rest of the EU fleet has a large over-capacity of boats, plans a 50 per cent reduction of its purse-seiners — using giant nets to encircle and scoop up shoals – by 2012 from a base of 2008. Owners will be offered incentives in just the first year to decommission boats under a scheme favouring bigger vessels.

Mr Buonfiglio notes the EU has commended Italy for its crackdown on illegal fishing this year. Observers, he said, were on board all purse-seiners. The Coast Guard says it has seized 65.3 tonnes of illegally fished tuna so far this year, up from 7.9 tonnes in all of 2008.

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