The European Commission today called for a ban on trade in bluefin tuna from 2011.
The commissioners responsible for environment and fisheries, Janez Potočnik and Maria Damanaki, presented a proposal to support a ban on trade in bluefin tuna at the meeting of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Doha next month.
If the proposal is adopted it would ban industrial purse-seine vessels capable of catching large numbers of fish from trawling the Mediterranean. Small artisanal boats would be allowed to continue fishing.
To enter into force, the proposal needs the support of a weighted majority of EU member states. Then it would need to win support of two-thirds of the around 175 countries attending the CITES summit on 13-25 March.
Potočnik said the likelihood of the bluefin tuna species surviving was “very low” unless action was taken. He stressed that a ban may not be necessary if the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the body responsible for managing all tuna, took stronger measures to protect stocks.
Although the ICCAT did not have “the best record”, it deserved “one more chance”, Potočnik said. At its last meeting ICCAT had taken steps to improve conservation, he said, such as setting scientifically-based catch quotas and making efforts to reduce the size of the fishing fleet.
The governments that are members of ICCAT will meet in 2010 to assess the state of bluefin tuna stocks. The Commission thinks that a group of experts from CITES should then decide whether a trade ban is still necessary.
“In essence we hope that [a ban] will not be necessary,” Potočnik said. Waiting until 2011 was “not a serious postponement”, he argued, because CITES rules make it impossible to put a trade ban in place before the start of this year’s tuna fishing season.
The three-month season for bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean starts on 15 April. But CITES rules mean that any new trade bans or restrictions do not come into force until three months after the end of the March conference.
A majority of EU member states are in favour of a ban, including bluefin tuna fishing nations France and Italy. Damanaki, whose support was instrumental in bringing about today’s proposal, said she expected Greece to support a ban. Spain, the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, as well as Cyprus and Malta, have still to declare their position.
Last year these three countries were part of a blocking minority that prevented the EU from making a trade ban its official position.
The announcement brings an end to weeks of wrangling between the Commission’s environment and fisheries departments. Damanaki said today that she was “well aware of the short-term cost this decision will have on Mediterranean fisheries”, but a drastic reduction in the amount of fish caught was needed to avoid a collapse in stocks.
The fisheries commissioner secured an exemption for artisanal fishing boats, although how these vessels will be defined still has to be worked out.
Conservationists welcomed the Commission’s support for a ban. Greenpeace’s Saskia Richartz said: “It’s now or never for bluefin tuna and any setback at this point could threaten the survival of the species.”
But she criticised the delay. “The Commission suggestion that ICCAT should be given one more chance is absurd. Its bad management led the species to collapse in the first place. Given that the EU agrees that a suspension of trade is justified, it should act now and not wait for others.”
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