Negotiators leave bluefin tuna doomed

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PARIS, France — Negotiators from 48 nations have pushed the noble Atlantic bluefin closer to collapse as the world wolfs down tuna-belly sushi like there is no tomorrow.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) trimmed its 13,500-ton annual quota to 12,900 tons after meeting for 10 days here earlier this month.

Environmental groups fought hard for a 50 percent reduction, if not a total ban. Estimates say the Atlantic bluefin is already four-fifths gone in the Mediterranean, decimated by high-tech fishing and flagrant violations.

The decision to make a minor cut reflects a wider trend: As global resources grow scarce, complacent governments favor short-run commercial and political interests over sustainability.

According to ICCAT’s own scientists, Atlantic bluefin have only a 70 percent chance of returning to healthy levels provided no more are caught than the quota allows.

In practice, few patrol boats or inspectors police the seas. Cash-strapped governments focus instead on illegal immigration and potential terrorism.

A single full-grown bluefin, sleek as a Lamborghini and nearly as fast, can bring $100,000 in Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. But few of those prized fish are left.

See photos from a Greenpeace vessel policing the Mediterraneanto prevent illegal fishing.

“It is now clear the entire management system of high seas fisheries is flawed and inadequate,” a Pew Environment Group statement said. “The time for letting the fox guard the hen house is over.”

Oliver Knowles, a campaigner for Greenpeace, called the quota a distressing sign of the times. Increasingly, he said, environmental regulation is left to trade groups shielded from scrutiny.

“The press is allowed in for the opening ceremony and the final communique, and we have no access,” he said. “All the horse trading is done in private behind closed doors.”

Voting is secret, and delegates do not reveal their positions.

Governments must act together to protect species and habitats with rigorous enforcement, Knowles said. “Without this,” he concluded, “regulation is useless.”

Environmentalists are particularly critical of ICCAT, which some call International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.

Pressure comes from Japan, which imports 80 percent of Mediterranean tuna, as well as governments that are not eager to confront small but disruptive fishermen’s unions.

At times, the Paris meeting had the air of a three-ring circus.

Demonstrators targeted Bruno Le Maire, France’s minister of agriculture and fisheries. He argued that a lowered quota would threaten thousands of jobs.

Greenpeace stalked him with its “tunamobile,” a Mini with a fat fake tuna lashed to its top.

Mourad Kohoul, an invective-spewing spokesman for French fishermen, said at one point that crews would sink any protesters’ boats that approached the fleet.

“This is the end of the world,” he said in a phone interview. “If fishermen can’t pay back loans they’ve taken for boats and gear, their families will starve.”

In fact, a WWF study says, few workers are involved. Only 17 boats haul in 84 percent of France’s quota. The catch is mostly sent to net enclosures — tuna ranches — to be fattened for market.

Kohoul said even the 4 percent cut was a “swindle” because it ignored scientific evidence that Atlantic tuna stock was still viable.

But he cites partial findings from Ifremer, the prestigious French ocean research agency, which has confirmed that Atlantic bluefin are at serious risk.

Separate polls find European sentiment runs heavily toward protecting the tuna. Even in food-loving France, a convincing majority supports effective controls.

Jacky Lorenzo, a fish purveyor to Parisians for 40 years, is an example.

“It’s insane,” he said, packing up at the Alma market. “They should ban the catch altogether for two years, and tuna will come back. Otherwise, they’re gone.”

Lorenzo blames middlemen in Mediterranean ports. “These guys only think of money, money, money,” he said. “Who earns when the fish are gone?”

Yet despite wide concern, fishmongers — including Lorenzo — quickly sell all the tuna they can set out on ice. The case of bluefin tuna mirrors others, such as caviar and endangered game birds.

Lorenzo said bluefins he buys average about 40 kilos, half of what they did a decade ago. He displayed a tail tag affixed by official inspectors to verify origin.

“If a fish isn’t labeled like this,” he said, “someone should have to pay a huge fine or go to jail.”

He said demand is so strong that even if Mediterranean fishing were banned, boats would find bluefin out in the Atlantic or the Indian Ocean.

“To save this species,” he concluded, “We’ve got to get serious.”

Koba, an always-jammed hole-in-the-wall eatery in Paris, seldom fails to offer toro, fatty white sushi from a bluefin belly. The proprietor draws a sharp breath and changes the subject when asked about his source.

One day during the ICCAT meeting, Koba had no toro. Asked if this was a new decision or simply a supply problem, the proprietor smiled.

“Come back tomorrow,” he said.

See photos from a Greenpeace vessel policing the Mediterraneanto prevent illegal tuna fishing.