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Sea Shepherd moves to protect Mediterranean Bluefin Tuna

Wietse van der Werf
Engineer, Steve Irwin

The Sea Shepherd ship Steve Irwin, which recently returned from a highly successful anti-whaling campaign in the Southern Ocean, is set to arrive in Europe this week. In a new campaign to halt illegal tuna fishing in the Mediterranean Sea, dubbed "Operation Blue Rage", Sea Shepherd intends to actively intervene against the poachers, which are pushing the fish towards extinction.

The bluefin tuna is so heavily overfished that it is expected its breeding population will have disappeared from the Mediterranean by 2012. The region has always been known to be an area rich in biodiversity, yet in the last 50 years, industrial fishing, in particular trawling and purse seine fishing for bluefin tuna, has decimated the populations of marine wildlife. Purse seining is a method in which entire schools of fish are caught in a single haul. Up to three quarters of the bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean is caught in this way. After they have been transferred to pens at tuna farms, they are fed up to 25 times their own body weight to meet the demands of the market. Over 80% of bluefin tuna caught worldwide is exported to Japan, where the fish end up as a highly prized ingredient in sushi.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which set up in 1969 to manage the bluefin tuna fishery, has time and again failed to protect the species properly, setting yearly catch quotas well above the sustainable recommendations set by their own scientific committee. In November 2008, at the opening of ICCAT’s annual meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, ICCAT chairman Fábio Hazin warned delegates that this was the "very last chance to prove that we can do our job properly. If we fail, other institutions will take over." The focus did indeed shift, to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), after the ICCAT meeting failed to set sustainable quotas for the 2009 fishing season.

A proposal by Monaco the following March, to add the bluefin tuna to the Appendix I listing of CITES, would have resulted in an international trade ban for the fish, it however did not make it through the voting rounds. Whilst the United States, Russia and most of the EU supported the inclusion of the fish for protection, Japan, Canada and various Asian and African nations voted against it. It seems that the decision by most countries to oppose the ban was largely influenced by the fact that the ban would have been a first for a major commercial fishery. The reasoning was that, had it passed, other fisheries with similar signs of mismanagement and overfishing would have been prone to bans, too.

With Sea Shepherd's controversial tactics to intervene against Japanese whaling in Antarctica now coming to European waters, it is clear that the battle to save the bluefin tuna has entered a new phase. The situation is getting desperate, and Operation Blue Rage is likely to have a decided impact, if only in bringing the bluefin tuna situation to a much larger audience. Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson is serious about putting an end to the bluefin situation: "I am angry that the bluefin tuna crisis has gotten so out of hand. The fishing industry is literally investing in the extinction of this species so that they can control the price by hoarding the entire supply of bluefin tuna in cold storage. This kind of greed cannot be allowed to continue."

In recent years, many attempts to give bluefin tuna added protection through the conventional political processes have failed. In this light, Sea Shepherd's willingness to directly intervene against illegal fishermen in this most lucrative type of fishing operations, might be one of the species' last chances of survival.