Fishermen and environmentalists have been sparring at a Paris conference over the future of the bluefin tuna. The highly prized fish, which is served in sushi, can fetch up to 70,000 euros a piece at wholesale markets.
A large bluefin tuna can fetch up to 70,000 euros
Representatives from the 48-member countries of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) are considering whether to tighten fishing quotas for Atlantic bluefin tuna at a meeting in Paris that is due to wrap up on Saturday.
Though the talks include many endangered species – from sharks to swordfish – tuna is the most contentious.
Environmentalists say decades of overfishing have depleted stocks of bluefin tuna to an extent that threatens the species' existence. They also fear that current guidelines for fishing the tuna are being flaunted, and that ICCAT is doing too little to stop this.
"Bluefin tuna are some of the most amazing fish in the sea and I think they're so undervalued," Gemma Parks, who is representing the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) at the talks, told Deutsche Welle.
"They can accelerate faster than a Porsche, they grow up to 300 - 400 kilos, they can live for up to 40 years, they're a warm blooded fish, which is highly unusual, and they're highly migratory."
Parks said that the WWF is seeking an end to industrial fishing, especially the use of the purse-seine netting. The purse-seine is a floating drawstring net that loops around an enormous area.
It can capture thousands of fish at once, which are then hauled to coastal fish farms where they are fattened for market.
"Large-scale, industrial fishery, which is the purse-seine fleets, is really the sector specifically which is the culprit of the illegal fishing and the rule breaking," Parks said.
Ignoring the rules
Environmental groups say the purse-seine nets are doing irreparable damage
Environmentalists say rule breaking is rampant in the Mediterranean Sea – the only place with significant remaining tuna stocks, since the Atlantic's supply of bluefin tuna has mostly been depleted.
Though the quota for blue fin tuna in the Mediterranean is set at 13,500 tons, Parks says fleets from major fishing countries like France, Italy and Spain regularly engage in a black market trade.
A recent report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) unveiled a culture of over-exploitation and cheating that is largely overlooked by government officials.
Almudena Gomez, who is representing the Spanish fishing industry at the conference, says those caught cheating will be punished, but she believes cutting the quota any further, as environmentalists propose, would be a disaster for fishermen.
"We don't have to give false alarms with false figures," she told Deutsche Welle. "The stock is recovering. The recovery plan is working quite well."
Meanwhile, an independent report commissioned by Greenpeace to coincide with the conference found that 30 percent of tinned tunas tested in a dozen countries were mislabelled or had other irregularities that showed up in a genetic analysis.
Some of the 50 brands sampled contained different species of tuna across the same product, or two different species in the same tin, an illegal practice in Europe.
Some tins, for example, labelled as skipjack - a plentiful tuna-like fish found in the Indian and Pacific oceans - also had bigeye or yellowtail tuna, both species with declining populations.
The majority of European tuna is exported to Japan
Protecting fish or livelihoods
Yet in the Mediterranean port of Marseille, tuna fishing is not only central to the economy, it's a way of life. Some 80 percent of the Mediterranean catch is exported to Japan, the world's major market for tuna, which is savoured there in sushi.
Murad Khaloul, head of the French fishing union, accuses ICCAT and European Union bureaucrats of needlessly tightening quotas.
"They've broken up almost half of our fleet in the last decade," Khaloul told Deutsche Welle.
"They've destroyed fishing in the North Sea. There's nothing left there, so they're setting their sights on the Mediterranean. And tuna seems to be in style. This is simply genocide of fishermen."
But others believe that ICATT is not doing enough to save tuna stocks. Some businesses are even taking steps on their own.
Giant retailers like Carrefour, Ikea and several sushi chains have signed a Tuna Market Manifesto – pledging not to sell or buy bluefin tuna until a proper recovery plan is put into place.
The WWF also reported on Friday that French supermarket chain Auchan, French food services giant Sodexo and British restaurant chains Pret A Manger and Moshi Moshi have also pledged to stop serving Atlantic bluefin tuna until the situation improves.
Author: Eleanor Beardsley, Ben Knight
Editor: Nathan Witkop