The international tuna trade's watchdog is meeting in Paris to decide catch quotas for Atlantic bluefin tuna. Sparks could fly in the wake of a recent investigation implicating the regulators in mismanagement.
WWF wants drastic cuts to bluefish tuna fishing
Representatives of the 48-member International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) have begun a 10-day meeting in the French capital to seek a compromise between boosting stocks of the dwindling Atlantic bluefin tuna species and salvaging a multi-billion dollar industry spread across the Mediterranean.
Gemma Parkes, a spokesperson for WWF Mediterranean, said ICCAT is under increased pressure to impose further restrictions after a ban on bluefin tuna fishing failed to pass earlier this year.
"It's showdown time for ICCAT - time to prove what they can do," Parkes told Deutsche Welle from the meeting in Paris.
The WWF is an official observer of the ICCAT meeting and is allowed to sit through some of the meetings and sometimes intervene.
It's unclear as yet just how radical ICCAT's decisions will be on bluefin catch-quotas for next year.
ICCAT's scientific committee said last month that extending the 2010 catch limit for each of the next three years would give bluefin in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean a 63-percent chance of attaining so-called "maximum sustainable yield" by 2022.
The fishing industry supports this continuation of the current recovery program, but says additional cuts could devastate the fishing industry.
Greenpeace activists have taken direct action to stop purse seining in the Mediterranean.
"The fishing sector is already in a delicate situation. A reduction in quotas could destroy companies and have ramifications far beyond just the vessel. There are many industries relying on a vessel, like the harbor, traders and transport," Javier Garat, President of Europeche, a European organization which defends the interests of fishing enterprises, told Deutsche Welle.
Environmental groups are pressing for much lower limits.
"A 60% chance of recovery isn't good enough. It's not acceptable to allow for a 40% chance of collapse. Who would get on a plane that only has a 40% chance of arriving at its destination?" Parkes said.
The WWF is pushing for quotas to be cut from 13,500 to between zero and 6,000 tons. That they say would at least give stocks an 85% chance of recovery by 2022.
"We are also urging for an end to purse-seining and the establishment of 'no fishing zones' in spawning areas," Gemma Parkes added.
Purse-seine fishing in the Mediterranean traps bluefin – and other by-catch - in floating drawstring nets that loop around an enormous areas. It can capture thousands of fish at once, which are then hauled to coastal "farms" where they are fattened for market.
WWF, along with NGOs Oceana, Greenpeace, and the Pew Environment Group, have called for a ban on this kind of fishing.
Garat from Europeche defends the practice and said "there's no problem with purse-seine fishing as long as it complies with quotas."
A ban on purse-seine fishing "is a realistic scenario," said Fabio Hazin, chairman of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) at a discussion forum.
The meeting comes at a sensitive time for ICCAT, which came under fire in an investigative report earlier this month for failing to monitor the bluefin fishing industry effectively.
The report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) painted a bleak picture of over-exploitation in the tuna trade.
"There has been a depressingly widespread lack of control and respect for rules," Parkes said. She says that ICCAT "needs to be able to enforce the rules".
The fishing industry fiercely denies breaking the rules.
"Fishermen have made a huge sacrifice to comply with the recovery plan. Evidence shows that compliance with the recovery plan is very strict," Javier Garat said.
ICCAT is expected to discuss the findings of the report pertaining to infringements of its rules during the meeting in Paris.
Japan's appetite for sushi has fuelled the bluefish tuna industry
Driven by wholesale prices in Japan that can top 100,000 dollars per specimen, industrial-scale fishing in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic has depleted stocks by almost three quarters over the past four decades, while the size of the average captured bluefin tuna has almost halved.
The Japanese consume 80 percent of the Atlantic bluefin catch, with Americans appetites accounting for nine percent.
ICCAT member-states disagreed sharply going into the meeting as to whether next year's quotas should remain at 13,500 tons, or be cut in half, or even suspended.
France's fisheries minister, Bruno Le Maire, said his country favored maintaining the 13,500 quota, a position backed by Spain and Italy.
Britain and Germany, along with EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki, have come out in favor of a sharp reduction.
The European Union was supposed to forge a common position going into the meeting, but has so far failed to do so.
"It's going to be a tough two weeks. Tuna trading has a strong lobby that wants to keep the status quo. We're hopeful of a positive outcome and there's a lot of international support on our side," Parkes said.
Europeche President Garat said the industry was facing increasingly stiff opposition. "We have noticed that the pressure from NGOs and is very big."
Author: Natalia Dannenberg
Editor: Nathan Witkop