Europe Leans Toward Bluefin Trade Ban
Freshly harvested bluefin tunas are uploaded from a “tuna farm,” off the Calabrian coast in southern Italy in November 2009.
PARIS — European officials are increasing pressure for an international ban on the commercial fishing of bluefin tuna, a threatened species whose fatty belly is prized for sushi. But they are facing a delicate balancing act as they try to weigh economic interests of a Mediterranean fishing industry, a sushi-loving Japan, and a species that some experts say is on the verge of extinction.
In the latest move toward protecting the fish, France said Wednesday that it would back a ban starting late next year on international trade in bluefin, which are found in the Atlantic as well as the Mediterranean Sea. About 80 percent of the bluefin catch is exported to Japan.
“The species is in difficulty,” Jean-Louis Borloo, the French ecology minister, told journalists in Paris on Wednesday. A ban, he added, is “the most powerful measure possible.”
Bluefin stocks have plummeted as demand for sushi has risen and powerful industrial fishing boats known as purse seiners have come into use. The stocks are now below 15 percent of their historical level, a team of scientific experts from tuna-fishing nations concluded at a meeting in October in Madrid.
In July, Monaco proposed that bluefin tuna be listed as an “Appendix 1” endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Such a listing would provide the same level of protection accorded pandas and some whales, effectively banning international trade in the fish. A panel of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization concluded in December that the species met the criteria for an Appendix 1 listing. Monaco’s proposal will be lodged officially when the 175 nations that are parties to the treaty meet next month in Doha, Qatar.
Because most of the European Union, including Italy, has already lined up behind Monaco, France’s support should help bring the 27-nation body in line for a unified position in Doha. Spain, which currently holds the union’s presidency and is widely thought to oppose a ban, would have to present the union’s position. The incoming European Commission — the bloc’s executive arm — is expected to take up the issue as early as next week.
The French government’s stance had been in doubt. France, along with the European Union, had initially applauded Monaco’s proposal, but it later joined several other tuna-fishing nations, including Italy and Spain, in objecting.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has had to balance public support for a bluefin trade ban, as well as a public appeal from Prince Albert of Monaco, with the danger that angry fishermen might seek to embarrass his center-right party by blockading French ports before March regional elections.
France’s backing for a ban comes with strings attached. Mr. Borloo and Bruno Le Maire, the French agriculture and fisheries minister, said support was conditional upon an 18-month delay in implementation, which they said was to obtain additional scientific data. The delay would allow two more fishing seasons to pass.
They also said a ban should not affect sales of bluefin tuna caught by line and pole or by longline within Europe. Like Italy, France will also seek financial aid from the European Union to help the fishing industry.
Sergi Tudela, head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Mediterranean fisheries program, said: “We’re disappointed with the delay. They’re saying that they need time to gather more scientific data, but there’s more than enough information on the table already. We’re asking them to drop that condition.”
Still, the move is “positive,” he said. “France has understood that an Appendix 1 listing is the only way to save this fishery.”
The fishing industry was quick to voice its disapproval.
Mourad Kahoul, president of an association representing industrial fishing fleets in France, Italy and Spain, said that his group “is doing everything it can to change the government’s mind on this,” and that there were differing scientific views on the outlook for the fish.
“What is not about to disappear are the boats, which cost 3 million euros a few years ago and which they now want us to scrap,” he said. “Well, why did they let us build them in the first place?”
The United States fishing industry is “strongly opposed” to listing the fish under the endangered species convention, said Rich Ruais, executive director of the American Bluefin Tuna Association, who said the trade ban “would create a huge black market.”
“In fact,” he said, “we believe a listing has the possibility of doing more damage than good.”
Japan has not yet made its own position official, though it is widely expected to fight the proposal, as was the case in 1992 when Sweden sought to have the bluefin listed. The United States initially said it supported Monaco, but it has not made clear its position.