'A Disgrace' Environmentalists Outraged by New Tuna Catch Limits

Conservationists have slammed new international limits for bluefin tuna, agreed to in Morocco on Monday. They say the Mediterranean tuna fishery is facing collapse. But the European Union says the new agreement will slow illegal fishing.


Many had been hoping that the meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which ended on Monday evening in Morocco, would bring relief for rapidly declining stocks of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea. However, the group passed a "total allowable catch" limit of 22,000 tons of bluefin for 2009.

The number was far higher than the 15,000 ton maximum suggested by the group's own experts to avoid a decimation of tuna stocks. The agreement did not include a suspension of tuna fishing during the spawning months of May and June, as ICCAT scientists had recommended.

Environmental groups were quick to blast the report. Sergi Tudela, a Mediterranean fisheries expert with the conservation group WWF, said in a statement, "this is not a decision, it is a disgrace." Sebastian Losada, an expert from Greenpeace who attended the meeting in Marrakech, said in a statement on his group's Web site, "The game is over. ICCAT has missed its last chance to save the bluefin tuna from stock collapse."

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Both groups said the tuna fishery should be taken out of the hands of the ICCAT as a result of the decision. "These past seven days have demonstrated that ICCAT is a farce," Losada said.

Despite the criticism, the total allowable catch agreed on by ICCAT -- which regulates tuna fisheries throughout the Atlantic Ocean and is dependent on a consensus among all nations affected -- was reduced from the 29,500 tons allowed in 2008. Further reductions were foreseen for 2010 and 2011, and the season for certain types of net fishing was sharply reduced.

"The result may not be perfect, is certainly not perfect," allowed ICCAT Chairman Fabio Hazin, according to Reuters. "But it was the best result possible in such a complicated meeting, and I am very confident and hopeful that the decisions we have made here will help to ensure the sustainability of the tuna stocks we manage."

In addition to limits, one of the primary concerns addressed by the week-long meeting was the amount of tuna caught illegally. The conservancy group Oceana estimated that some 61,000 tons of bluefin tuna were caught in 2007 -- more than twice the legal limit. Greenpeace and WWF have both warned that illegal tuna fishing remains a rampant problem in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. ICCAT itself has said that illegal fishing in 2006 added some 30 percent on to the legal catch figures.

Prior to the ICCAT gathering, the European Union's Fisheries Commission had called it a "make or break" meeting for bluefin tuna. Some at the meeting say the European Union pushed hard for the higher limits that were eventually passed -- which also increased political friction. Reports circulated on Monday and Tuesday allege that the European Union had threatened to penalize developing nations present at the meeting should they not agree to the higher limits.

At a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday, European Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg emphasized that the new agreement includes stricter measures aimed at limiting illegal tuna catches. He also said the agreement "will not simply reduce fishing pressure on the stock drastically. It also defines mechanisms for control throughout the marketing chain and closes many outstanding loopholes."

Still, both WWF and Greenpeace have now called for tuna to be listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in an attempt to sharply limit tuna fishing. "It is clear," said Tudela, "that the only thing that will slow the fishery with ICCAT at the helm is running out of fish."

cgh -- with wire reports

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