July 4, 2006

Illegal fishing threatens survival of Europe’s tuna

BRUSSELS -- Illegal fishing has devastated Europe's stocks of the highly prized bluefin tuna and threatens the species' survival in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean, environmental campaign group WWF said on Wednesday.

International quotas that aim to keep fish stocks viable were exceeded in both 2004 and 2005 for bluefin tuna, it said.

"Fleets from the EU -- mainly France -- Libya and Turkey are the main offenders," WWF said in a report. "These countries are greatly exceeding their fishing quotas and deliberately failing to report much of their massive catches."

Demand for bluefin tuna, one of the fastest fish in the sea, is always high since it is particularly popular in sushi and sashimi dishes. Unlike most tunas, bluefin grow slowly and mature late, making them more vulnerable to intensive trawling.

"Unreported tuna catches are increasingly slaughtered and processed at sea before being shipped out on board enormous vessels destined for the lucrative Japanese market," WWF said.

WWF estimated that around 44,900 metric tons of bluefin tuna were caught in 2004, well beyond the 32,000-metric ton quota allowed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). The catch was even higher in 2005, it said.

The group demanded that trawling for the fish should stop immediately in both Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic waters and said it would lobby EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg for the 25-nation European Union for make sure this happened.

Environmental groups, particularly WWF, have long complained that bluefin tuna fishing is out of control in Europe and repeatedly point to the Mediterranean as the worst problem area.

With Atlantic fish numbers at dangerously low levels, fleets were moving to Mediterranean waters to catch the fish there too, the report's author Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi said.

"In the race to catch shrinking tuna stocks, industrial fleets are switching from traditional grounds to the last breeding grounds in the eastern Mediterranean and Libyan waters," he said in a statement.

Greenpeace warned in a recent report that bluefin tuna was nearing commercial and ecological extinction in the Mediterranean.