European Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg has found himself in the front line of an increasingly acrimonious war concerning the future of the Mediterranean bluefin tuna – that “million-dollar” marine delicacy, prized above all other fish on the Japanese market, which is currently at the centre of a fierce polemic involving wildlife conservationists, industrial fishermen and criminal organisations alike.
In the past weeks, Malta’s former foreign minister has been on the receiving end of occasionally venomous criticism from all sides in the ongoing confrontation: mainly for having allegedly capitulated to pressure from fishing “giants” such as Spain and France in order to increase the official EU bluefin tuna quotas, and to circumvent the implementation of international regulations aimed at revitalising wild tuna stocks – two charges vehemently denied by Commission sources.
Leading the pack of Borg-bashers is spy-novelist and Daily Express correspondent, Frederick Forsyth. A committed Eurosceptic, the best-selling author of ‘Day of the Jackal’ and ‘The Odessa File’ recently let slip the dogs of war on Commissioner Borg, describing him as “a rather dim, little, failed politician” who “was taken into a room with a French and a Spanish official and the door closed”… only to emerge from the meeting with “new guidelines” which effectively raised the European bluefin tuna quota to double the tonnage recommended by scientists.
Elsewhere in the British press, the Daily Telegraph’s environment editor Charles Clover levelled similar, albeit less vitriolic accusations at the Maltese Commissioner, claiming that: “After making the threat to close the fishery, which he could have carried out without further reference to ministers on the basis of scientific advice, the Maltese Mr Borg then presided over a negotiated deal which will allow fishing at twice the level that international scientists say is needed to prevent stock collapse.”
Commissioner Borg himself was unavailable for comment this week, but a spokesman for the Fisheries Commission dismissed all allegations of closed-door meetings as “totally unsubstantiated”.
“When people have no arguments, they often resort to schoolyard name-calling,” said Mireille Thom, in a clear reference to Forsyth’s visceral attack in the Express. “Besides, the articles only reveal blatant ignorance of how the Commission actually operates.”
Ms Thom told MaltaToday that the only meetings to discuss bluefin tuna stocks were actually trilateral affairs involving the European Commission, the (German) EU presidency and representations of interested member states… including, but not limited to, Spain and France.
Borg’s spokesman also denied that the Commission is responsible for setting tuna quotas, claiming that these were established by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna in Tokyo last November. At the same ICCAT summit, the Commission formally adopted Borg’s own “recovery plan”, which purports to ensure sustainable fishing, while at the same time allowing for the gradual recovery of depleted wild stocks.
But in what appears to be a bottomless ocean of technicalities, even Commission sources admit that the present situation, with all its apparent U-turns, is difficult to clarify without getting lost in the minutiae.
Mireille Thom explained that in November each year, the Commission sets “provisional quotas” for European fishermen in order for fishing to commence the following January, as the official ICCAT regulations would have yet to be transposed to European law. This year, the provisional quota turned out to be half the amount of tuna that was actually caught, with the consequence that in June - at the peak of the contentious bluefin tuna fishing season, which conservationists would like to see limited to July – the quotas were revised accordingly.
This might help to explain the widespread criticism that the Commission had arbitrarily “doubled” the quota allowed by the Tokyo agreement. But it remains a fact that the revised quotas announced last month have been criticised, not just by individual Eurosceptics and environmentalist NGOs, but also by countries such as Canada and the United States, both of which re-adjusted their own quotas downwards in accordance with the recommendations of ICCAT scientists.
Contacted by this newspaper, the World Wildlife Fund’s tuna project co-ordinator Sergi Tudela pointed out that, because of mismanagement of the Commission’s own recovery plan, there is the “real risk” of a total collapse in wild stocks of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean.
“The situation is real and very serious,” Tudela said. “Scientists have made it very clear in Tokyo last year: tuna stocks may collapse at any time. As things stand, the only possibility to avoid this is to close the fishery during the spawning season, i.e., in June. Also, the minimum landing size must be increased to prevent the taking of juvenile specimens.”
But according to WWF, Commissioner Borg’s announcement on 12 June of this year went a long way towards achieving the very opposite effect.
“It is true that the Commission implemented scientists’ recommendations to enforce a new minimum landing size,” he admitted. “But this regulation only came into force this week, on 1 July. This is far too late, as it has allowed purse-seiners (i.e., the large, industrial tuna-fishing fleets) to catch juveniles at the peak of the fishing season this year.”
On this point in particular, Commissioner Borg has even come under fire (albeit indirectly) from his own former cabinet colleague, Parliamentary Secretary Frans Agius, who also criticised the Commission for postponing the implementation of the minimal landing size. According to Agius, the failure to adequately implement ICCAT’s regulations has “greatly devalued” the credibility of the European Union where fisheries sustainability was concerned.
While avoiding any direct reference to Commissioner Borg, the World Wildlife Fund is nonetheless highly critical of the Commission’s implementation of the recovery plan.
“It is now emerging clearly that the EC has failed to implement its own management plan,” Tudela told MaltaToday. “Not enough action has been taken to prevent fishing infringements from taking place. Considering that the EU has proved incapable of implementing its own measures, we feel these should be revised to come in line with what ICCAT scientists have been recommending all along.”
Both WWF and Greenpeace International – currently monitoring the Mediterranean for tuna abuses on board its flagship, the Rainbow Warrior – claim that European fleets of various nationalities are currently engaging in numerous illegalities on the high seas, such as the use of spotter planes and illegal nets. Greenpeace has described the use of spotter planes, especially by Spanish fleets, as “blatant”; meanwhile, the massive revenue generated by this largely unmonitored activity has attracted its fair share of criminal attention. At last year’s ICCAT meeting, a WWF official complained of receiving a “white feather” on his desk – the traditional symbol of a Mafia death-threat.
In the light of these and other symptoms of apparent operational breakdown, WWF is proposing three measures, all of which conform to ICCAT recommendations: a reduction of the tuna fishing season to exclude June; the elimination of all EU derogations on tuna-fishing; and a reduction of the present EU quota of 29,500 tonnes to the scientists’ recommended 15,000.
“We are very hopeful that the next ICCAT meeting in Istanbul next November will bring about a positive change,” Tudela said. “It is very much the last opportunity. Everything at present points towards a very bad season this year: we are talking about low catches and small sizes of individual fish. Sooner or later, the necessity for an overhaul will be made clear even to the fishermen.”
For its part, the Fisheries Commission has sought to play down these claims of a “Wild West” scenario on the high seas.
“Enforcement is very much a weakness with the ICCAT measures,” Mireille Thom cautiously admitted when asked, “but it is not entirely true to say that no enforcement is taking place. At present, both Italy and France are facing EU infringement procedures over illegal practices in tuna fishing. But in reality the Commission’s role is to check the overall system. Responsibility for enforcing the individual laws ultimately falls to individual member states.”
At the end of the day, however, the Commission spokesman concedes that the situation leaves much to be desired.
“In an ideal world, the fishery would be closed to allow for full recovery of stocks. But there are also social and economic dimension that must be taken into account. For this reason the EU is trying to keep a level of activity going, while at the same time allowing for stock regeneration. No one is saying it’s an ideal situation. But if applied correctly, the management plan can work.”