Well, I turn up for the annual talks about tuna quotas at the notorious International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) - aka the International Conspiracy to Catch All the Tuna - in Paris. And guess what? I’m not allowed in.
Now, I’m used to being excluded from ICCAT’s deliberations as a member of the press. Quite used to that. But at all the meetings I have been to before, you are at least allowed into the room where the delegates meet to take coffee between sessions. If you are not, how are you supposed to do your job as a member of the press, canvassing all shades of opinion? How are you supposed to find anybody if the French security people on the outer door say you aren’t allowed inside? I decided to brush past, walk in anyway and find someone to remonstrate with.
The excuse offered this time by the genial Brazilian chairman of ICCAT, Fabio Hazin, was that 100 journalists turned up on the first day, Nov 16, and the little UN commission couldn’t possibly accommodate that many people. I take it as a great triumph for our film, The End of the Line - showing in Paris at an environmental film festival today by the way - that there were so many journos trying to cover ICCAT as normally it’s just me and a mad French film crew. This time the working of ICCAT have become international news. People wait to hear what the commission is going to do about the French payback - the 2500 tons of bluefin caught illegally that theoretically should be subtracted from the French quota next year. They wait to hear whether the commission will set a science-based quota for a change and whether it will finally accept that it is its job to managed the Atlantic’s population of sharks, of which a million are estimated to be killed each year for the Asian market. So what does ICCAT do in response to this new expression of interest by the world’s citizens? It shuts out their representatives, the press, unless, as I managed to do, they can argue that they are actually from a marine organisation. Anyone would think the world’s citizens had no interest in what is, legally, their own property, the sea.
One of the things about the global overfishing crisis that you get used to is that you can travel to the other side of the world and hear a story that you might well have been told about one of the fish you have at home. That’s what when I went to Buenos Aires last week for the premiere in Argentina of The End of the Line. The screening, organized by Marviva and Greenpeace, had a great turnout – 200 is good when there is a local derby football match going on in town. There were some good questions in the Q&A session at the end, in which I had expert backup from Greenpeace and the local affiliate of WWF.
When the questions got on to Argentine fisheries, about which I know very little, I was grateful to Guillermo Cañete, coordinator of the marine programme of the non- governmental Argentine Wildlife Foundation (the WWF affiliate) and genuinely fascinated by what he had to say. He told the audience that the Argentine hake fisheries of the southern Atlantic Ocean, still among the world leaders in the white fish market, are on the verge of collapse due in part to the indifference of the Argentine people, who are apparently more interested in eating beef and export most of their hake.
The decline of Merluccius hubbsi, known in Spanish here as “merluza,” threatens food security and biodiversity, though the Argentine hake is still the fourth largest in the world for white fish and first in the southern hemisphere. However, this wealth is sharply deteriorating, according to the National Institute of Fishing Research and Development (INIDEP). For every 5 adult hake there were in 1986, there is now just one. The reason is that younger fish have always been caught along with the adult hake. Even faced with the decline in fish stocks, the fishing companies have refused to use devices that would let smaller fish escape the nets.
Today, more than 60 percent of the hake caught are juveniles. “If nothing is done, the hake will collapse shortly,” Mr Cañete warned. If that happens, the first people to disappear will be fishermen. The Wildlife Foundation issued a call this year for Argentines to avoid buying hake filets less than 25 centimetres long, in order to discourage the capture of small fish.
Strange how familiar it all sounds to ears tuned to the northern hemisphere and to the annual discussions about cod and European hake. As we prepare for the launch of Fish2fork and the DVD of The End of the Line in Madrid next week (Nov 30) it is worth reflecting on the lessons from another country where hake is the favourite.
Commercial fishing around the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean ends today making it the largest “no-take” marine reserve in the world. The remaining fishing licenses will expire at midnight, following the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) decision to create the reserve in April.
The coalition government decided to proceed with the reserve, despite its austerity budget, after £3.5 million in private funding was offered by the Bertarelli Foundation, in a deal organized by the British-based Blue Marine Foundation, a charity spawned by the documentary film, The End of the Line.
The creation of the new sanctuary around the British Indian Ocean Territory, where commercial fishing will be banned, serves to highlight the slowness with which the international community has moved towards reaching a goal set almost a decade ago to protect marine life. In 2002, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the World Summit on Sustainable Development made a commitment to protect 10 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2012.
With only 15 months to go, it is estimated that just 1.17 per cent of the world’s oceans are under some form of protection, and a mere 0.08 per cent classified as “no-take” zones. Early on Saturday morning, government representatives at a UN conference on biodiversity held in Nagoya, Japan, put the 2012 deadline back to 2020.
Marine experts warned that it is scandalous that the original deadline will not be met, and said the 10 per cent target falls far short of what is needed. A third of ocean waters need protection to give marine species a fighting chance of survival, they said.
The shortfall between target and achievement was described as “massive” by Dr Heather Koldewey, manager of the Zoological Society of London’s international marine and freshwater conservation programme.
The failure to get anywhere near the original goal would result in “a massive loss of marine resources and, with that, an associated loss of people’s livelihoods”, she warned. “In terms of maintaining marine environments in some kind of operational form, science believes that actual protection should be in the region of 30 to 40 per cent,” she added.
Professor Charles Sheppard, from the University of Warwick also says more no-take marine reserves are vital to maintain sufficient life in our oceans.
He said: “Governments need to stand up to the fishing industry lobby before it is too late. We cannot afford to have any more delay by governments in honouring their commitments to protect areas of ocean. “Alistair Gammell, director of the Pew Environment Group’s Chagos campaign, said: “It is scandalous that governments are nowhere near the targets agreed to in 2002. The consequence of that failure is that fish and other species are declining in nearly every place you look.”
The Chagos reserve covers an area of 544,000 square kilometres - twice the size of Britain. Its waters are home to the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, as well as green sea turtles, dolphins and one of the world’s largest coral reefs - a habitat for more than 1,200 species of coral and fish.
It also has nearly 100 seamounts and underwater features thought to harbour undiscovered forms of life.
Marine life in the waters of the Chagos Archipelago has been hit hard by overfishing. The Zoological Society of London estimates that, over the past five years, around 60,000 sharks, an equivalent number of rays and many other species have been caught there as “by-catch” when fishing for tuna.
In an attempt to prevent the reserve becoming little more than a park on paper, a fisheries patrol vessel, paid for by private donation, will police the waters to ensure the fishing ban is not breached. In a statement last night a Foreign Office spokesman said: “The Government believes that a Marine Protected Area (MPA) is the right way ahead for furthering the environmental protection of the British Indian Ocean Territory. “As the world’s largest MPA, the UK’s example is encouraging others to do the same in other important and vulnerable areas.”
By Charles Clover