By Lewis Smith and Charles Clover of Fish2fork
Explosive advice to fisheries ministers has been issued telling them they have a legal obligation to ban bluefin tuna fishing in the Mediterranean and Atlantic for at least three years.
European Union fisheries ministers meeting in Brussels were given a 20-page briefing by lawyers from the environmental law organisation ClientEarth outlining why they are obliged to act. Bluefin tuna stocks have declined rapidly in recent years to the point they are regarded as “dangerously depleted” and campaigners have been pressing for the fish to be better protected.
ClientEarth has now carried out a detailed analysis of European rules and a variety of agreements the EU has signed up to and has concluded that bluefin stocks are in such a parlous state an automatic fishing ban should be triggered from 2011 to 2013. The organisation also told ministers that France should specifically be barred from receiving any bluefin tuna catch quota in 2011 “to penalize France’s overfishing in 2007”. Italy should also be penalized for overfishing, though not as severely as its neighbour, the legal group said.
It’s lawyers wants ministers to press for a moratorium when the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) meets next month to discuss bluefin fishing.
Nevertheless, sources close to the talks said ministers were likely to ignore the advice and were considering recommending a total catch quota of 6,000 to 13,500 tonnes. The quota this year was 13,500 tonnes despite scientists pressing for a maximum of 8,000 tonnes.
A ban on bluefin catches would be highly contentious and would cause fury among the nations that still hunt the fish. French fishermen are likely to be further incensed at being singled out for punative action for overfishing. Among the reasons cited by the environmental law organisation for demanding a ban on bluefin tuna fishing in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic are the terms of the ICCAT Convention.
The EU, rather than individual member nations, is a contracting party to ICCAT and one of the rules is that signatories must “cooperate in maintaining the populations of these fishes at levels which will permit the maximum sustainable catch for food and other purposes”.
ClientEarth advised that the European Commission, representing the EU, is legally bound to uphold the treaty which required the “precautionary approach” towards stocks to be taken. Bluefin tuna numbers are so low, the lawyers said, that this entails a ban on catching them. James Thornton, chief executive of ClientEarth, says: “The member states with a financial interest in the bluefin tuna fishery must not be allowed to stand in the way of the EU fulfilling its legal obligations in ICCAT negotiations.
“Bluefin tuna stocks in the Mediterranean are perilously low and unless there is an effective prohibition on fishing this magnificent species for at least the next three years it could take decades for the stock to recover. “Bluefin tuna has been recklessly overfished for many years. Member states whose fleets have overfished in the past must be penalised for their failure to enforce the rules. It is essential that no countries are allowed to go fishing for bluefin tuna in the East Atlantic and Mediterranean for the next few years to allow stocks to return to sustainable levels.”
Scientists at ICCAT concluded last year that the breeding stock of the species is so reduced that it is less than 15 per cent of levels before industrial scale fishing began.
ClientEarth stated in its ministerial briefing: “EU law therefore imposes a clear obligation on the EU to apply the precautionary approach and not to postpone taking action on bluefin tuna due to a lack of available data.”
Among the agreements the organisation cites as contributing to the conclusion bluefin fishing should be halted is the Marine Strategy Framework Directive which requires EU member states to ensure commercial fish stocks are maintained “within safe biological limits” and are kept healthy.
It added in its briefing: “As a result of the obligations under the Barcelona Convention and the SPA Protocol [Specially Protected Areas and Biological Diversity in the Mediterranean Protocol], the EU and its Member States are under a clear obligation to cooperate with ICCAT to take action to protect bluefin tuna.