Sunday Times of Malta, 25 April 2010

The vote on the proposal to ban international trade in the Atlantic bluefin tuna was soundly defeated last month at the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting. Originally tabled by Monaco and supported by both the EU and the US, conservationists sought an outright ban at CITES because they are convinced the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has consistently over the years not managed to regulate commercial fishing.

Things did not turn out as hoped for by the conservationist lobby and one of the main reasons for this is the EU’s inconsistency. On one hand the EU continues to hand out fishing quotas to its subsidised fleets, while on the other it demands a blanket trade ban.

Fishing authorities in Brussels openly declare their support for a moratorium on bluefin fishing in the Mediterranean while their rules continue to allow tuna to be caught by boats which were constructed with the help of public subsidies and processed in factories, built, similarly, with EU financial aid.

This attitude naturally did nothing for credibility among the rest of the CITES voting nations. To add insult to injury, since Mediterranean stocks are dwindling, the EU is now issuing licences for tuna fishing in the seas around Polynesia.

This hypocrisy fermented and floated to the surface in one of the CITES secret ballots when the EU’s block vote policy was shockingly ignored and broken by some seven members. The crux of the matter is that the market for this fish is too lucrative and the pressure from the fishing industry too great for enough governments to support an outright trade ban. This was amply demonstrated by Malta which did not even bother to pretend that it favoured the ban like the other 26 EU nations and pronounced itself firmly against it.

One might think the fishing industry would be in favour of ensuring the survival of the species. But fishing economics is not as simple as that. As the supply becomes scarcer, the demand and the price goes up so that investing the extra short-term revenue accrued, at favourable interest rates, can be more profitable than cutting catches to ensure a sustainable fishery. And anyway, to cap it all, the fishermen receive compensation from their governments when they scrap the fishing boats that broke the market in the first place.

EU nations are subject to restrictions in increasing the size of their fishing quotas but European companies, with the blessing of their governments, are finding ways of sidestepping these petty little details by forging partnerships in developing countries where monitoring and enforcement may not be as efficient as in Europe.

So where do we go from here? The tuna industry is not the first to face a crisis and will not be the last. There are another four or five species in danger of extinction because of overfishing. The probable demise of the bluefin tuna is only one component of an increasingly distressing situation. The fishing capacity of the trawlers exceeds by far the available fish and the sea just cannot produce enough food for the exploding world population.

Aquaculture already produces over 40 per cent of the worldwide consumption, and it is already providing part of the solution to overfishing. However, the technology still requires considerable refinement. One problem is the health issue brought about by the use of antibiotics in illness-prone cultures with a high density of fish. Another problem is that a farmed salmon eats three times its weight of wild fish by the time it reaches maturity. Many other species raised in farms, such as bluefin tuna, also require wild ocean-born fish for feed and this is putting additional pressure on ocean fisheries. Additionally, marine fish farms pollute the sea and endanger other species in the immediate vicinity.

For this reason it is necessary to develop sustainable production methods without the use of fish meal and with fewer burdensome intrusions in the environment. Another challenge facing aquaculture is the practice of catching young fish and fattening them in pens for export when they reach optimum commercial value. Aquaculture must develop the technology of hatcheries in which fertilised eggs are bred and raised until they reach maturity. This has already been successful in the case of some species such as sea bass and bream but is still in its infancy with the bluefin tuna.

Many of our seas are sick and the life they hold is dying on our beat. It is our responsibility to nurse both back to health and to preserve those that are not yet sick, not only for our own enjoyment but also for future generations.

Mr Camilleri is a council member of Din l-Art Ħelwa.