The Battle Over Bluefin

BRUSSELS, Belgium, September 30, 2009 (ENS)

Bluefin tuna is at risk of extinction as a species if unsustainable fishing practices in the Mediterranean are not stopped, scientists and some European countries are warning.

The European Commission has expressed its "grave concerns" about the state of stocks of the giant migratory fish, which are rapidly declining after decades of overfishing.

Last week, European ministers were considering a proposal to protect the bluefin tuna by listing the species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES.

Such a listing, if accepted by the upcoming 15th session of the Conference of the Parties to CITES scheduled for March 13-25, 2010 in Doha, Qatar, would automatically implement a temporary ban on all international trade.

But in a vote September 21, the 27 EU countries were sharply divided and could not agree on a CITES proposal to protect the bluefin tuna.

In order to be considered at CITES's next Conference of the Parties in Doha, proposal submissions must be received by October 17, 2009.

Monaco, the first country in the world to ban the sale of bluefin tuna, spearheaded the CITES proposal. The UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria have all publicly indicated their support for the ban.

But another group of European countries opposes a ban, mainly countries with large fishing fleets such as Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Spain, and Italy.

The European Commission, the executive branch of the EU government, backed Monaco's CITES proposal.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas called it "an important step in the protection of Atlantic bluefin tuna."

"We must act on the best scientific evidence available to us," said Dimas, "and scientists say that urgent action is needed to safeguard the future of one of the ocean's most emblematic creatures."

"From a scientific and technical point of view, the criteria for the listing of Atlantic bluefin tuna as an endangered species appear to be met," reads a draft document by the European Commission's environment directorate. "There is no doubt about the link between international trade and overexploitation of the species."

The Atlantic bluefin tuna is a large migratory fish found in the western and eastern Atlantic and in the Mediterranean Sea, where the tuna come every spring to spawn.

Bluefin tuna is prized around the world, usually eaten as high-grade sushi. Some 80 percent of Mediterranean tuna is exported to the Japanese market, which dictates prices. Some 30,000 tons of bluefin were sent from Europe to Japan in 2007, according to the European Commission.

In Japan, the price of a single bluefin tuna can range from US$2,000 to $50,000, depending on the size, the season, and the fat content - fatty tuna is the most desirable.

Once in awhile, a buyer will pay even more. At the daily fish auction at Tokyo's Tsukiji market last January, a Hong Kong sushi bar owner and his Japanese competitor agreed to share a giant bluefin caught in Japanese waters. They also shared the cost - $153,000.

Tuna weighing up to 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) were once found throughout the Mediterranean, but now such large fish are rare. These days, fishermen often catch small tuna before they can reproduce and place them in net cages to be fed and fattened until they are big enough for sale.