Times of Malta, 24 December 2009

In his letter Responsible, Strict Bluefin Tuna Fishery (December 16), Carmelo Agius is quite right when he says that we approach the issue differently.

While we agree that socio-economic implications need to be taken into account when conservation policies are implemented, our roads then diverge.

The socio-economic implications of the situation are interesting to contemplate. We should take an example from Canada’s experience with the cod industry, where the scientists’ warnings were ignored by the government and industry. Overfishing off Canada’s maritime provinces exhausted the world’s richest cod grounds and forced the government to impose a fishing moratorium. The collapse wiped out more than 42,000 jobs, and 18 years later the fish have still not returned. This also happened in other northern countries such as the UK and Iceland.

Unless drastic measures are taken immediately, this is going to happen to the bluefin tuna industry in Malta, which employs 1,000 people and is worth €100 million a year. Short-term economic gains will kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

The whole industry has been mismanaged by the European Union. The EU has given out tens of millions of euros to subsidise the Mediterranean tuna fishing fleets despite warnings from scientists that overfishing is pushing the species close to extinction. Between 2000 and 2008 a total of €34.5 million were given by the EU to support the fishing fleets. Over the eight-year period, €23 million were given to fund the construction of new boats, including ultra-modern purse seiners that are able to land 100 tonnes in one haul. A further €10.5 million were given to modernise existing vessels, increasing their ability to track down and catch the tuna. The EU has now committed to reducing overcapacity because there is not enough tuna to fish.

It is incomprehensible that Prof. Agius is proposing tuna fishing as a means of maintaining a stable equilibrium in the sea’s food web. The logic apparently being that closing down fishing completely and allowing the population of the predatory tuna to increase to what it should be would upset the marine ecological balance. Din l-Art Ħelwa believes the opposite to be the case and that the correct balance can be achieved by having all the marine species at the ideal levels as originally established by nature.

As Prof. Agius is aware, last October, ICCAT scientists reported that a global ban on tuna fishing would be justified. The report was published by ICCAT and gave a mountain of statistics showing the different probabilities of survival compared with the TAC (total allowed catches) or fishing levels. The statistics clearly show that the species will be extinct in a few years unless a global ban on tuna fishing is imposed.

It is useless to maintain that there is a 75 per cent chance of survival if the TAC is fixed at 13,000 tons. Even if this TAC were acceptable, it is unenforceable in practice. There are at this point in time insufficient mechanisms in place to control under-reporting of catches, re-exporting of stocks, illegal fishing, the use of spotter planes and other malpractices. Limiting stocks of tuna catches makes it very difficult for the authorities to control catches and keep to the quota established. It is much easier to abolish tuna catches temporarily and fine whoever is caught fishing for tuna or carrying the implements used for its fishing.

As to the probability of the species becoming extinct, it is ICCAT’s own scientists who are suggesting the probability not Din l-Art Ħelwa.

In conclusion, readers may wish to know that a UN-FAO panel has just found that sharks and Atlantic bluefin tuna need CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) protection. This coming March 13-25 in Doha, Qatar, the CITES parties will meet and decide on proposals which, if taken on board, will list these species under Appendix 1 automatically signifying a worldwide ban on trade.

George Camilleri is a Council Member of Din l-Art Helwa