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Bluefin tuna are the new whales

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A last-ditch campaign to save the bluefin tuna is fast gathering support in Britain and will soon become a political and environmental issue in Australia where the species is being fished with indiscriminate abandon for super profits.

London’s celebrity chefs are taking the endangered fish off their menus and Waitrose supermarket has banned its sale. Fishmongers and restaurateurs throughout the country are being assailed - or so we read - by customers asking, “Do you source your fish sustainably?”

Bluefin tuna is on the brink of extinction through overfishing, and the issue is now so critical that both Britain and France are supporting a resolution by Monaco to ban fishing of the species when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meets in Doha in October.

Japan, where a single fish can command more than $120,000, is expected to oppose the move. Let’s see what that gallant protector of the whale, Peter Garrett, decides to do.

The issue of overfishing has come to the fore in the past month thanks to the release of the critically acclaimed documentary The End of the Line, based on the award-winning book by London Daily Telegraph journalist Charles Clover. “Everybody knows there’s no fish left in the sea,” says Clover. “They probably caught them while we were filming it.”

Mature spawners are fished out in UK waters, and are fast disappearing in the Mediterranean, where bluefin are still being landed at a rate of at least 60,000 tonnes a year - three times the legal limit, with organised crime with Mafia links said to be involved.

Public concern has led to a significant shift in policy in Britain and France. Although France has Europe’s biggest bluefin fishing fleet, President Nicholas Sarkozy last month spoke out for the need to protect fishing stocks. “Ours is the last generation with the ability to take action before it’s too late,” he said.

British fisheries minister Huw Irranca-Davies followed suit, saying he will lobby the United States and other countries to support the ban on sales of bluefin.

The End of the Line, which premiered to critical acclaim at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, documents not only the bluefin issue but such cases of overfishing as the catastrophe of Newfoundland, home to the world’s most abundant supply of cod, which has been decimated since the early 1990s.

The film also shows how African coastal people, long dependent on fish, are losing their food supply to big commercial fisheries. And it demonstrates that fish farming, with its need for massive supplies of fish food, is no solution to the problem.

Scientists interviewed in the documentary predict that if fishing continues unchecked, the population of the oceans will be wiped out by 2048.

The End of the Line is an independent film made with the support of organisations including WWF, the Marine Conservation Society, Channel 4’s Britdoc Foundation and charitable foundations, and backed nationally by Waitrose.

It initiated a citizens’ campaign to change fish sales practices through consumer action. Jamie Oliver didn’t take tuna off his menus until clients started raising the issue. Japanese chain Nobu attracted spirited protests when it refused to stop serving tuna sushi in its London outlets.

The film-makers themselves are leading the campaign. Producer Claire Lewis, who says working on the project changed her life, doesn’t eat anywhere without first asking: “Can you tell me where your fish comes from?”

Author Charles Clover has been campaigning on the issue for five years now. “We must stop thinking of our oceans as a food factory,” he says, “and realise that they thrive as a huge and complex marine environment.

“We must act now to protect the sea from rampant overfishing so that there will be fish in the sea for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

This documentary, which has the hard-hitting quality of Michael Moore’s movies, deserves to be released in Australia but no distributor has yet stepped forward.