29 November 2006

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WWF, Maltese fishermen bemoan “disaster” in the Med

Matthew Vella

The WWF ominously announced the “death knell” for Mediterranean bluefin tuna, after this year’s International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) drew to a close. It accused the European Union of having refused to accept a strict recovery plan “which is so desperately needed”.
Raymond Bugeja, secretary of the National Fishing Cooperative, labelled the EU’s so called rescue plan “a disaster in the Mediterranean” after the minimum weight of tuna catches was increased to 30kg from 10kg, effectively making it harder for small-size fleets to catch smaller weigh tunas. “The agreement is discriminatory, especially when considering the derogation enjoyed by the fishing industry in the Adriatic, where Commissioner Borg has effectively given them a licence to kill.”
Tuna fishing is a lucrative business for Maltese fishermen and tuna farms with most of the fish being shipped directly to the Japanese sushi market. But scientific reports claim tuna stocks are rapidly being depleted due to overfishing, with the possibility of extinction in a few years’ time.
European Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg welcomed the agreement reached in Croatia saying it represented “a realistic chance” for the gradual recovery of bluefin tuna and for the sustainability of the fisheries, the fleets and the coastal communities involved.
The new 15-year plan include a reduction in the total allowable catch from the current 32,000 tonnes to 25,500 tonnes by 2010, and a ban on the transshipment of tuna at sea as regards purse seiners, while all landings or transfers to cages will be subject to prior notification and strict control measures. Fishing for bluefin tuna will also be prohibited for large-scale pelagic long line vessels over 24 metres long between June and December and between July and December for purse seine fishing.
But there will also be a substantial increase in the authorised minimum landing sizes from 10 kilos to 30 kilos. Additionally, a global control system will be introduced covering every step of the process, from the catch to the market place through to landing, transshipping and caging operations.
But the WWF said ICCAT had approved “an extremely weak set of measures” which will fail to protect the vulnerable species. It said ICCAT was no longer the adequate forum to ensure the conservation of bluefin tuna.
“Today’s decision will go down in history as destroying the credibility of ICCAT as a regional fisheries management organisation. This is an unprecedented scandal, sounding the death knell for bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean,” Dr Sergi Tudela, head of fisheries at WWF Mediterranean, said.
The WWF said the EU plan included no reduction in total catch, and a seasonal closure which deliberately excludes the peak of spawning when most adult catches are taken.
“This is a collapse plan, not a recovery plan – and a mockery of the work of scientists,” Tudela said. “The EU has betrayed its obligation to sustainably manage fisheries for the sake of the short-term interests of its own bluefin tuna industry.”
A WWF report published in July showed that EU fleets are responsible for the bulk of illegal catches of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean.
The agreement will also affect Maltese fishermen and tuna breeders. The effects on Maltese fishermen will be limited because they usually fish for tuna using traditional methods and the majority of boats are under 24 metres.
But as the quota for the EU will be reduced, this may lead to Malta’s tuna quota being slightly smaller.
Malta has an annual quota of 344 tonnes. The final decision on next year’s quotas will be taken during the EU fisheries council next month in Brussels.

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