A worldwide ban on the trade in the endangered bluefin tuna has moved a step closer after France pledged its support.
In a significant move the French said they would support the listing of bluefin tuna under appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) but with conditions.
French environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo and fisheries minister Bruno Le Maire said they want an 18-month delay before the measures come into force. In return for its support France is also likely to seek an exclusive fishing zone for line-caught tuna as well as financial aid to retrain fishermen who are likely to be laid off.
This will be seen as a sop to the powerful French fishing lobby which has threatened blockades if the ban is imposed. The fishermen’s leaders are also seeking an urgent meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The fast-disappearing bluefin is a lucrative export market for the fishermen, fetching premium prices in Japan where it forms a central part of the sushi menu.
France is following Italy, which holds the EU’s third largest quota for bluefin tuna, in support of the proposed trade ban. France and Italy together hold a bluefin tuna quota of more than 4,320 tonnes in 2010, one-third of the total allowable catch of bluefin tuna and more than half the EU quota.
Conservation groups have warned that a prolonged delay to any ban would prove disastrous to bluefin tuna stocks and could lead to the extinction of the species.
Monaco has already proposed a CITES listing for bluefin tuna but this was opposed by Mediterranean fishing countries - Spain, Italy, France, Cyprus, Greece and Malta - last September. The u-turn by France in the face of pressure from environmentalists could be decisive at the next CITES meeting in Qatar in March when the ban could be imposed.
Greenpeace EU oceans policy director Saskia Richartz said: “Europe is finally coming round to putting its weight behind the protection of bluefin tuna. It would now be ridiculous to follow France and stand by for the next two years without taking action while tuna moves closer to extinction.”
Huw Irranca-Davies, UK Fisheries Minister, said: “Whilst we were pleased that ICCAT recently took steps to protect bluefin tuna fish stocks, we remain unconvinced that this action alone will give the highest protection we feel is needed, not least because of the hidden and significant threat of illegal and unreported trade in Bluefin.
“As such, we maintain our long held position that Bluefin be given the highest protection available by listing it under CITES Appendix 1. We hope that the indication from France that they are willing to support this stance will encourage other EU countries to re-evaluate their position and give this threatened species the protection that is urgently needed.
“We hope that the momentum building around the Monaco proposal - a proposal which the UK has always supported - will pave the way for the EU to support the listing at the meeting of CITES parties in Doha in March.
“The situation of the bluefin tuna is clearly exceptional, both in terms of the decline of the species and the failure of international effort to halt and reverse those declines. The UK will work tirelessly to secure the adoption of the Appendix I listing in Doha.”
Dr Sergi Tudela, WWF’s tuna expert, said: “WWF is pleased that the French leadership among Mediterranean states is calling for the international trade ban for Atlantic bluefin tuna and we urge the French government to drop the call for an 18-month delay in implementing the ban.
“This decision was made despite a comprehensive report made last year on the historical depletion of tuna stocks, which revealed that current stock levels are under 15 percent of what they once were. The mechanism suggested by France for triggering the ban is not allowed under the text of the CITES convention, besides being neither scientifically nor economically justifiable.”
“Atlantic bluefin tuna is in a state of severe collapse after decades of overfishing and reproducing stocks are dwindling to an all-time low - and the driver of this situation is clearly international trade.
“To give the species a break, an immediate ban of international commercial trade at CITES - without condition or delay - is the only logical step for the global community to take. Anything less is woefully insufficient.”
France’s policy change could be decisive at the next CITES meeting in Qatar in March, after Italy said last week it would back a ban.
Last year a panel of independent experts appointed by the UN recommended at a meeting in Rome that international trade in the critically endangered bluefin should be banned or at least controlled if the species is to survive.