Timidity and procrastination are once again the order of the day for the European Commission in the face of protests from fishermen. The Commission is supposed to be preparing its collective position on bluefin tune, ahead of a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
What the Commission ought to be doing, if it were not terrified of offending member states that have shores on the Mediterranean, is pressing for a ban on trade in bluefin tuna. A temporary ban, perhaps, but a ban nonetheless.
What the Commission is actually doing is equivocating, paralysed by a disagreement between Stavros Dimas, the commissioner for the environment, who wants a ban, and Joe Borg, the commissioner for fisheries, who does not.
Borg’s line is that the trade ban is not necessary because the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has agreed measures to reduce fishing for bluefin tuna. Borg’s sunny optimism does him some form of credit (though it will not help the tuna). After five years as fisheries commissioner, he has a touching (if misplaced) faith in the efficacy of fishing restrictions.
Even though experience ought to teach him otherwise, he appears to believe that reduced catch allowances will be complied with and that the reporting of catches will be improved. This is naivety bordering on recklessness: under-reporting or non-reporting is endemic. The EU’s own auditors have pointed out that the real levels of fisheries catches are unknown.
The conclusion that Borg should be drawing from the ICCAT’s deliberations is that the prospects for the bluefin tuna are so dire that even the ICCAT, which has a record of setting catch-levels far above the recommendations of scientists, knew it had to do something. The ICCAT restrictions are perhaps an attempt to pre-empt more painful measures, such as a trade ban, but that does not mean that Borg should be taken in.
The bluefin tuna is hurtling towards elimination from EU waters at such a speed that the ICCAT’s fishing restrictions should be reinforced by a CITES trade ban. Of course, that position will not be palatable to the EU’s Mediterranean member states; Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain have all previously opposed such a ban. But that does not mean the Commission should back down. The Commission’s duty is to stick to the unpalatable facts: stocks of bluefin tuna are being run down at an unsustainable rate.
This is a problem not confined to the Mediterranean. It is a global problem because the market for bluefin tuna is a global market, with Japan’s insatiable appetite for the fish being a big part of the problem, driving up demand and driving up prices. Because it is a global problem, a trade ban is appropriate.
The Commission should consider the balance of probabilities and work out that bluefin tuna is in danger of extinction. The Commission should ask itself whether, when it arrives at that point, it will want to look back and say that it did nothing, or look back and say that it at least made an attempt to stop the destruction. If the trade ban is thrown out by the member states, then so be it: the national governments must answer for their actions. But the Commission is supposed to rise above such short-termism.
Ironically, the Commission is about to launch a paper about halting the loss of biodiversity. The Commission describes biodiversity loss as the major global environmental problem alongside climate change.
It is not too difficult to read across from the biodiversity issue to the fate of the bluefin tuna. The loss from the oceans of these huge fish, which can grow to 800kg in size, would be a scandal. The Commission should unite behind support for a trade ban.