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Monthly Archive for November, 2009

Political flip-flops on bluefin?

As ICCAT souvenirs, delegates will be packing their bags in Recife with a delightful polo shirt emblazoned with ‘ICCAT’ and a bluefin tuna, and a pair of flip-flops in Brazilian colours.

Somehow this is quite fitting.

The meeting has just come to a close, and the rushed final sessions have agreed as much as they could. In that haste, several things were put off to be considered again next year.

Like the protection of endangered mako and porbeagle sharks, and measures to reduce the bycatch of seabirds and turtles. These sorts of delays are common in ICCAT when agreements can’t be reached. But hey, why do today, what you can put off until next year, right?

But the true legacy of this meeting will be the discussions on bluefin tuna. Much of that discussion clearly happened behind closed doors, with the open sessions us mere observers get to see being something of a rehearsed pantomime for some members.

On the final day a proposal came forward for a quota of bluefin tuna (for the Mediterranean and East Atlantic) for 13-and-a-half thousand tonnes for 2010. That could only have been more unlucky if they’d come forward with it two days earlier, on Friday 13th. It marked a huge drop in quota, and for the first time the bluefin quota was set *within* scientific recommendations.

It’s just a shame they ignored the recent updated scientific recommendations and used last year’s instead. For just three weeks ago, ICCAT’s own scientists showed that not only did Atlantic bluefin meet the criteria to be listed under CITES for a trade ban, but also showed that only a quota as low as 8,000 tonnes would show any chance for the stocks to recover at all. Unsurprisingly the best option for rebuilding the stock was zero quota. All of this meant that the only credible thing ICCAT could do was close the fishery.

They have failed to do that. So perhaps the polo shirts are meant as a commemorative epitaph for a species ICCAT has given up on. In the words of one delegate who was pushing for the fishery to be closed ‘I would like to bid farewell to our good friend, bluefin’.

And the flip flops? Well ‘flip-flop’ was famously used to describe a Presidential candidate in the US for changing his mind, repeatedly. So the question has to be – where now for all of those countries who have stood up and called for effective action on bluefin, or even publicly backed a trade ban? 21 out of 27 EU member states, including the UK and France have done that (although it seems Sarkozy may have already flipped). And does the United States really think that ICCAT has done enough to protect Atlantic bluefin?

If you ask a country’s representative here you will get a stock answer along the lines of ‘oh someone else deals with that’, because fisheries and environment departments are usually conveniently partitioned. So who is going to flip-flop now on bluefin tuna? Can the ICCAT participants put their hand on their hearts (which, conveniently is just where the bluefin is on the polo shirts) and say they’ve done enough here this week?

I don’t think so. The panicked agreements are all about this organisation doing whatever it could to avoid CITES listing, a point that was referred to again and again by interventions around the table. CITES will meet in March 2010, and they may well free up ICCAT’s agenda next year if they do agree an international trade ban, as they desperately need to.

As we now bid farewell to Brazil, we are tempted to do more than just wave our flip-flops on the way out of the meeting.


Analysis: a failure of governance dooms the bluefin tuna

Let’s be absolutely clear. The people whose task it is to manage the bluefin tuna stocks of the Atlantic have failed once again, even under the eyes of the world, to take the advice of their own scientists. They should now be brushed aside.

The Atlantic tuna commission, meeting in Porto de Galinhas, Brazil, has agreed a proposal to drop the catch limit for bluefin tuna in the Eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean next year from 19,500 tons to 13,500 tons.

I was at the meeting and interviewed the chief scientist of the commission, Dr Gerald P Scott and he told me that in the present uncertain state of bluefin stocks – which in layman’s terms are in a state of collapse - 15,000 tons doesn’t meet the commission’s recovery plan which looks for a 50 per cent chance of recovery by 2023.

The paper Dr Scott showed to the meeting showed that only a 8500 ton quota might have a chance of meeting the commission’s remarkably weak objective for recovery. Only a total closure of the fishery yielded a significant chance of the bluefin recovering from a serious threat of commercial extinction.

So the proposal for a 13,500 ton quota by the chairman of the meeting, supported by the EU, Japan, Morocco and Tunisia, is a political quota, not a scientific one. It is far too high. No wonder the United States did not support it. No wonder the environmentalists are portraying it as a failure. The only silver lining is that this decision could, just conceivably, lead to the management of the bluefin being taken away from the tuna commission.

Susan Lieberman of the Pew Environment Group, a US-based not-for-profit organisation, responded to the news by saying: “When you adjust the new catch limit to account for over-fishing and rampant illegal fishing by some countries and add in ICCAT’s poor enforcement and compliance record, the prospects for the recovery of the once-abundant Atlantic bluefin are dismal.”

No one is that surprised, though. For it has turned out that the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) was mis-named, for it has never once taken scientific advice literally in its 40-year history as you will see from my article in the Sunday Times.

The result of the meeting is now likely to increase demands for international trade in bluefin to be banned by being listed on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the same provision that was used to save the African elephant in the 1980s after an epidemic of ivory poaching.

The EU was unable to agree to support such a listing in September, with the six Mediterranean nations forming a blocking minority and 21 nations in favour. That decision is likely to have to be formally revisited now before the CITES meeting in Doha next March.

The ICCAT meeting formally identified nearly all the countries catching bluefin for breaking the rules – a new thing – one of the most common infringements was tuna fattening farms accepting fish without proper documentation to show that they had been legally caught.

Despite a week spent at the five-star resort, delegates were unable to agree on measures to protect vulnerable shark species. They did agree to ban the retention and landing of bigeye threshers, one of the slowest growing and most vulnerable sharks, but allowed Mexico an exemption to catch 110 of them. They put off until next year any consideration of measures to prevent 12,500 vulnerable seabirds being caught by tuna long-line fleets.

In a further instance of what environmentalists were portraying as overall failure, officials among the Atlantic nations endorsed the use of “wall of death” drift nets by Morocco for another two years.

Moroccan fishermen are estimated to kill 4,000 dolphins and 25,000 sharks in their drift nets each year. Drift nets have been banned internationally by the UN since 1992.

Dr Sergi Tudela of the environmental group, WWF, said: “This year all contracting parties talked of the need to restore ICCAT’s credibility, and to do so they endorse the slaughter of 50,000 more sharks and 8,000 more dolphins, violating UN resolutions?

“It is beyond belief and is one more proof of the total dysfunction of ICCAT as a serious fisheries management organisation.”

No comment was available from the ICCAT contracting parties or the European Commission last night on the decisions made at the meeting.


Could bluefin tuna fisheries be closed?

So, here in Brazil, the game is on. At the end of yesterday’s session the parties around the table at the ICCAT meeting were asked what their priorities were for conserving bluefin tuna.

One by one they made positive murmurings about wanting to ‘follow the scientific recommendations’, and enforce compliance with them. They all pretty much said they want to see illegal fishing tackled.

No rocket science there, and you would be forgiven for wondering why they have not done those things already!

More importantly there were also some hints as to how low some countries would go in terms of a quota, with several actually suggesting the possibility of closing the fishery. To you and me that may be a no-brainer. To many of them, it is a seismic shift.

Now, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves here. There is a lot of horse-trading to be done behind closed stable doors. And it’s worth noting that the talk about closing the fishery is just for one year – which could well be a very convenient way of avoiding bluefin being subject to an international trade ban under CITES.

Greenpeace, and other conservation organisations here, won’t settle for that – and we are reminding the participants at ICCAT that the only credible thing they can do is close this fishery.

And it seems they desperately want to regain some credibility here. You can understand that, after all ICCAT was branded an ‘international disgrace’ by an independent review.

The spotlight is on them because of what they have allowed to happen to bluefin, and the bureaucrats who attend these meetings really don’t like that. Delegate after delegate has talked about the need for ICCAT to claw back credibility, conveniently ignoring that this is a situation their own bad judgement in the past has got them into.

From an observer’s point of view here there is much to be cynical about. This is a dysfunctional meeting in a tropical paradise, at a resort whose very construction has caused disruption and problems for the local coastline in Brazil, with gala dinners, cocktail receptions, and a self-congratulating bunch of faceless bureaucrats mismanaging species, fisheries, and livelihoods.

Yesterday was an eye opener, with some impassioned and stirring interventions (particularly from some of the African delegations) requesting stronger action to protect stocks of fish in their waters.

At several points I wanted to stand up, cheer and applaud. But those heartfelt pleas were met by some cynical process point-scoring by delegations on the other side of the table, immediately filling me with despair.

There is still a long way to go here.

  • Willie MacKenzie is part of Greenpeace’s Ocean Campaign. This blog post originally appeared on the Greenpeace UK website.


The End of the Line is shown at ICCAT

The End of the Line was shown in remarkable circumstances this week – in the official convention hall of a hotel near Recife, Brazil, where the world’s oldest whole-ocean fisheries management organisation was meeting to set controversial catch limits for the Atlantic’s dwindling populations of tuna, swordfish and sharks.

The End of the Line is shown at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas meeting in Brazil

The End of the Line is shown at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas meeting in Brazil

It took a certain amount of persuasion. It needed the crucial backing of the Brazilian chairman of the meeting, Prof Fabio Hazin (the curiosity of these meetings is that the chairmen are usually enlightened while the contracting parties from the fishing nations, which include Libya, are anything but).

It also needed a mysterious process of agreement from heads of delegations sitting in closed session.

The chief scientist, Dr Gerald P Scott, an American, was consulted, and pronounced in a neutral kind of way that the idea of showing a film, after and outside the official business of the day, was something that had been done before - though quite when nobody could remember - and might provide an opportunity some delegates might not otherwise get to see it. The film was duly shown in the convention centre, on official equipment.

Was this a sign that the dysfunctional International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas – often known to its critics as the International Conspiracy for Catching All The Tuna – was at last beginning to listen to voices outside the fishing industry, such as the citizens who actually pay them to manage the sea? No one could say for sure.

About 40 people postponed their need for a beer or managed to slip out of meetings to see the film. Some of these, inevitably, were the already converted: conservationists who were seeing the film as an act of solidarity with its message.

Two Asian delegations stood around talking before filing out. But here and there, as you looked around, were some senior delegation folk sitting in small groups including, significantly, most of the Spanish delegation. At the end, there was applause.

We were approached the next night by the secretariat requesting a second screening for delegations, principally Mexico, that had missed the screening we had organised because of meetings. So we were back by popular demand.

Could the message be getting out that our seas are a mess and ICCAT has failed for 40 years to tackle the problem of the depleting Atlantic ocean?

Whether or not this was a sign of changing times, for once this week the message got through.