French tuna fleet sets off amid criticism

France’s controversial bluefin tuna fishery kicked off on Wednesday, as Greenpeace activists encircled three tuna trawlers to stop their progress to sea.

For one month, 17 French tuna fishing boats will hit the Mediterranean to harvest this year’s 2,019 metric ton quota, down from 3,591 metric tons in 2009.

Feeding the drive for bluefin tuna is highly lucrative demand from Japanese sushi consumers, who are eager to pay a premium for this prized fish. Earlier this year, for example, a 128-kilogram bluefin tuna went for more than USD 100,000 at Tokyo’s fish auction.

But opponents to bluefin tuna fishing argue that the species is threatened due to overfishing. Bluefin tuna numbers, they say, have dropped nearly 75 percent, the bulk of which (70 percent) has occurred in the last 10 years.

“We have the responsibility … to stop the extinction of this species, whose survival will possibly play out this year, despite the quotas and reduced fishing time,” said Emmanuel Buovolo of Greenpeace France on Wednesday, when 14 Greenpeace activists encircled three tuna trawlers near the port of Frontignan in southern France.

Activists are expected to ramp up their efforts after a proposed ban on the international trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna was shot down at the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) meeting in Doha, Qatar, in March. 

The fishery is managed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) as two stocks (eastern and western). For the French fishermen, management by ICCAT is “sufficient.” They point out that 12 out of 28 vessels will be forced out of the fishery this year.

In parallel, ICCAT slashed the eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna quota to 13,500 metric tons in 2010, compared to 22,000 metric tons in 2009.

“Bluefin tuna fishing in France involves about 1,500 [fishermen] in the Mediterranean and Atlantic. For one job at sea, you can count three on the land. A listing on Appendix I would have dramatic consequences for the industry,” said the National Maritime Fisheries Committee of France prior to the CITES vote.

Worth EUR 16 to 20 million and employing about 1,000 people, France’s bluefin tuna fleet is comprised of 200 small “artisan” boats that also fish for tuna from the country’s 2,019-metric-ton quota. Approximately 80 percent of French-caught bluefin tuna catch ends up in Japan.

In a bid to alleviate concerns over illegal fishing, the French government announced this week that the trawlers will be subject to tight surveillance. The country’s fisheries and food ministry will co-ordinate measures to “manage and control” the bluefin tuna fishery, as each individual quota will be looked at on a daily basis. Since 2008 an independent observer has been present on each boat, added the ministry.

Further, the patrol vessel Jean Charcot, fitted with state-of-the-art technology, will scout the Mediterranean, part of an overarching European plan to better control the fishery, and the boats must transmit, hour by hour, their satellite positions. 

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