Tuna – the sandwich shop staple – has become a poster-fish for the rampant over-exploitation of the oceans. Can the destructive trends be reversed?

If you buy a fish sandwich in Britain today you can be fairly sure it will not contain thunnus thynnus, otherwise known as the Atlantic bluefin tuna. Overfishing means these zeppelin-shaped leviathans – they can grow to a length of four metres – are severely threatened, so serving them up has become taboo.

But there is a different attitude in Japan, where the bluefin is prized for sushi and sashimi, despite its endangered status. Up to 80% of the Mediterranean bluefin catch travels thousands of miles to the east, says Julie Cator of marine campaign group Oceana. For the Japanese, continued consumption of bluefin is a “cultural issue”.

The bluefin catch should be regulated by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. But ICCAT’s own figures show that 61,000 tonnes of bluefin were taken from the east Atlantic and Mediterranean in 2007. This is more than double the 29,500 tonnes agreed by ICCAT as the total allowable catch, which is itself double the 15,000 tonnes or less recommended as a “sustainable yield” by ICCAT’s own scientists.

Raül Romeva, a Spanish, green member of the European parliament, says the tuna management policy makes no sense. “When you are doing something that is obviously wrong, that is stupidity. This is what happens with the tuna,” he says.

But in the UK at least, bluefin tuna rarely appears on the menu, although there are high profile hold-outs, such as posh sushi house Nobu. The widespread British boycott is largely thanks to a high-profile and very successful campaign, led by Greenpeace and WWF, to persuade supermarkets to source their tuna sustainably.

Switch to skipjack

The campaigners’ message has been rammed home by the documentary film The End of the Line, which graphically illustrates the damage done by tuna fishing practices. As a result, the tuna you will most likely find in your sandwich is skipjack, which is not considered endangered and makes up more than half of the global tuna catch.

Nicky Fisher of sandwich chain Pret A Manger says the company uses only “sustainable” skipjack caught in the Maldives by individual fishermen using a pole and line. A Greenpeace “tuna league table” shows that Sainsbury’s pursues a similar policy, and others, such as the Co-op, are increasingly following suit.

But campaigners cannot yet claim total victory. Some in the tuna business, including Britain’s biggest tinned brands, John West and Princes, still source tuna caught by purse seiners – vessels that trap fish in giant drawstring bags. This is insufficiently selective, campaigners argue, and has a disastrous impact on endangered species such as sharks, rays and turtles, which are also caught in the huge nets.

The tuna is a high-profile case but its plight is representative. The problem is a simple case of “too many boats chasing too few fish”, Cator says. According to European commission figures, the global catch of all fish peaked at 96.7m tonnes in 2000, up from 85m tonnes a decade earlier. But by 2005, as a result of declining stocks, it had fallen back to 93.8m tonnes.

The European Environment Agency’s latest assessment of fish stocks, published in February 2009, shows that about a third of assessed commercial stocks in the north-east Atlantic, and half of stocks in the Mediterranean, are “outside safe biological limits”. In particular, all demersal stocks – fish that live on or near the sea bed – “have declined and are currently not sustainable”.

The problem is compounded by the wastefulness of fisheries, to which management failings contribute. The European Union’s Court of Auditors, in a 2007 report, said the failure of EU countries to reduce the size of their fishing fleets was an incitement to illegal fishing.

The EU’s system of variable quotas for each species has led to an immense problem of by-catch and discards – unwanted fish being thrown back into the sea, usually dead. This can reach 60% of the catch in some areas. The EU’s top fisheries official and European commissioner Joe Borg, in a speech in May 2009, admitted in a rather understated way that “some discards result from the implementation of the current regulatory system”.

The need for a thorough overhaul of fisheries management is a constant theme of those in the ocean protection business. Cator says that “ecological sustainability is the key factor”, rather than social or economic concerns, because the latter depend on the former. Too often, fisheries managers see scientific advice as something “to be taken into consideration, rather than [being] at the core of decision-making”.

Romeva, the green MEP, says it is not too late. “We still have room for manoeuvre and the possibility of correcting big mistakes,” he says. He emphasises the effectiveness of consumer action to control demand, as has happened in Britain with the bluefin. His home country of Spain has also seen bluefin removed from some menus, but more needs to be done and politicians should “try to explain that there is a problem”.

Romeva adds that the voice of big industrial fishing conglomerates needs to be curtailed in forums such as ICCAT. These firms, he says, are backed by investors who “see the seas as a way to short-term and quick profit”. When the seas are empty, the investors will simply seek profits elsewhere. “They are not talking in the name of the whole sector,” he says. He argues that those working at the smaller-scale and more traditional end of the industry are conscious of the problems and want to address them, whereas the conglomerates “know that they are overfishing and overselling”.

Policies under review

The EU’s fisheries policy is under review, but at a slow pace. European commission spokeswoman Nathalie Charbonneau says the commission is “still collecting inputs” on what could be done, and will “analyse all these inputs” in 2010, before publishing proposals in 2011. A reformed system could be in place by 2013 – some time off.

EU policy processes may be cumbersome and time-consuming, but there is a feeling that a make-or-break point has been reached. Kjartan Hoydal, secretary of the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, the umbrella management body for the cold seas to the west of Europe and south of Iceland, says there is a “turning point now”.

Management plans can work, Hoydal says. For the north-east Atlantic, plans are in place for herring, blue whiting and mackerel, and are broadly working. And he cites the case of the Norwegian spring-spawning herring as an example of what good management can achieve.

Around the British coast, management measures such as restricting fishing in some areas, or limiting the fishing gear that boats can go out with, seem to be having an impact. Peter Hooley of the Marine and Fisheries Agency (MFA) says cod and sole have been overfished. Cod stocks dropped to a low point in 1998, but “recovery measures are many and have seen some improvement, although anecdotal at this stage”.

British fishermen, Hooley says, mostly try to stay within the rules because they recognise fisheries management “as a job to be done for the greater good”. But the MFA will also wield a big stick when necessary, and the agency’s website is full of case reports of fishermen fined thousands of pounds for offences such as falsifying log books or fishing in areas set aside for stock recovery.

A way out for the bluefin?

To the south, the bluefin tuna crisis may be tackled in another way. Monaco wants to list the species in Annex I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), meaning that international trade in the bluefin would be banned.

Monaco says it will go through the formal process of requesting the listing because of concern over the pillaging of bluefin stocks. The plucky principality suffered a small setback in September when the EU decided not to co-sponsor the request, because it was not backed by Mediterranean member states. But Patrick van Klaveren, Monaco’s minister counsellor with responsibility for the environment, says the EU’s failure to agree the request was for technical reasons, and Monaco remains “totally” committed to obtaining the listing.

Van Klaveren says that when the issue comes up at the next Cites meeting, in Doha in March 2010, he expects the broad backing of EU countries. However, the outcome is uncertain because “there may be a lot of countries lobbied by Japan,” which will target the Cites members with no direct interest in bluefin tuna.

Monaco has also acted because ICCAT is seen as failing in its duty to sustainably manage tuna stocks. Maria Cornax of the Oceana campaign group says ICCAT, due to decide in November on tuna quotas, is “feeling the pressure” of a possible Cites listing and “they realise now that they must take measures immediately”.

Fisheries management in general, Cornax says, should follow a simple three-stage approach. There should be no fishing without management measures; the global over-capacity of fishing fleets should be eliminated; and the period in which “we have been systematically ignoring scientific advice” should end. Management should be based on science alone.

It seems clear and straightforward, but the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission’s Hoydal cautions that it may be too simplistic. It is in the developing world where demand for fish is growing, and where management structures are weak or non-existent. Campaigners concentrate on the developed world but they should “start to look elsewhere”, Hoydal says.

Romeva agrees but says “responsibility coming from the north is crucial” because “we love to take their resources”. Industrialised countries are contributing to overfishing off the coasts of developing nations, he says.

The bluefin is a test case and the possible Cites listing or greatly reduced ICCAT quotas will be an indication whether the fishing industry can genuinely change its ways. But the outcome hangs in the balance, shortsightedness may prevail and, despite warnings and scientific understanding, bluefin tuna and other fish stocks may continue on the road to ruin.

Hard of herring? Not in Norway

Fisheries management can work, says Kjartan Hoydal of the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission. And the Norwegian spring-spawning herring proves it.

This species spawns off the coast of Norway, then goes on a circular migration route around the Norwegian Sea. It was a major fish stock “for centuries”, Hoydal says, but after the second world war was comprehensively overfished until, at the end of the 1960s, it “simply disappeared”.

However, by the mid-1980s, the Norwegian spring-spawning herring was back, though recovery was slow until the end of the 1990s, when there was a sudden increase in the spawning stock almost to the immediate post-war level. By the time the fish made a comeback, the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission had been created, and measures were put in place to ensure there was no repeat of past mistakes.

These include regulations to protect immature fish, principally relating to net sizes, because most Norwegian spring-spawning herring are caught by purse seiners or trawlers dragging huge nets. Fisheries can also be temporarily closed if by-catches are found to be too great. But the main measure is a realistically set quota. The fish stock is now back to about 12m tonnes, according to Hoydal, of which 1.5m tonnes is allowed to be taken each year.

Hoydal says the Norwegian spring-spawning herring is “one of the really big success stories”, and its management is based on cooperation between the states that are members of the commission – the EU and Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Russia. In other fisheries, such as tuna, such cooperation has been lacking, Hoydal says. But, “there is hope”.

Tuna off the menu? Not exactly

The environmental documentary film The End of the Line seemed to have an immediate impact in the UK earlier this year. A number of media outlets, including the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the Times newspapers reported that Julian Metcalfe, founder of sandwich shop chain Pret A Manger, was so horrified by the film that he immediately issued an edict removing tuna from the chain’s 155 outlets.

But it wasn’t true. It was only yellow fin tuna, which is increasingly threatened by overfishing, that the Pret ban applied to. The company’s sustainability manager, Nicky Fisher, says Pret A Manger has never sold endangered bluefin tuna, but continues to sell sandwiches stuffed with sustainable skipjack from the Maldives.

The source of the misinformation was the Daily Mail, Fisher says. On June 6, the Mail published a confused story that said Pret was pulling bluefin from its sushi boxes and that it was taking tuna and cucumber sandwiches off the menu. However, the story did say, accurately, that skipjack would continue to be used. In the following two days, other newspapers lifted the story, but did not check their facts and omitted the part about skipjack.

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