News | Sunday, 30 August 2009
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Borg, Dimas in ‘turf war’ over proposed tuna ban

A proposal to ban the international trade of bluefin tuna has exposed clear divisions within the European Union, with Fisheries Commissioner Dr Joe Borg reportedly incensed at the perceived ‘intrusion’ of his own colleague, Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, in the issue.
Wildlife conservationists have long warned that the prized bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) has been overfished to the brink of total stocks collapse in the Mediterranean, largely on account of the extraordinary prices the species fetches on international markets.
Agencies such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) argue that unless action is taken without delay, the spawning stock will collapse irreversibly by 2012, resulting in a long but inevitable slide towards extinction. Other experts such as consulting group ATRT claim the process has in fact already begun, having started back in 2007.
But it was only this week that the European Commission’s DG Mare – which falls under Borg’s portfolio – was finally forced to discuss the issue, after Dimas’s DG Environment openly backed a proposal by Monaco to have the fish listed on the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
If accepted by the European Commission, this initiative would translate into a de facto ban on the international bluefin tuna trade.
The DG Mare has to date resisted such measures in its attempts to control the Mediterranean fishery, and has consistently downplayed fears of an imminent stocks collapse. But its equivalent in Dimas’s Commission, the DG Environment, this week confirmed that the bluefin tuna meets every criteria for listing under CITES, and stressed that the declining population stats are closely linked to commercial interests.
Several EU member states have already endorsed Monaco’s proposal for a ban, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and even France, which boasts one of the largest bluefin fisheries in Europe.
However, other countries involved in the trade – most notably Italy, Spain and Malta – have so far avoided taking up any public position on the issue. It is understood that some may already be lobbying against the proposal behind the scenes.
EU showdown
As expected, no final decision was reached during Friday’s meeting between the two directorate-generals (Fisheries and Environment), and the issue will now be discussed in another series of meetings between all 27 Commissioners, commencing this week in Brussels.
It is possible that a final decision may be reached as early as Wednesday 2 September, in what has already been dubbed a ‘showdown’ between Dimas and Borg: respectively perceived to approach the issue from vastly opposing camps.
While Dimas is understood to adamantly support the ban as the only option left to save the threatened species, Borg argues in favour of ‘balancing’ scientific advice against the interests of the industry, and has to date consistently defended quotas which are markedly higher than those recommended by the EU’s own scientific advisors.
It is a clash of opinions in which Malta – arguably the EU’s largest tuna ranching nation – may well have a deciding role to play. Malta’s tuna ranching sector generates an estimated €100 million a year in profits for the entrepreneurs involved, of which the Maltese government claims a percentage in tax. Unsurprisingly, the same government – which is currently faced with the decision of whether to re-nominate Dr Joe Borg as Malta’s EU Commissioner, when his term comes to an end later this year – has strongly hinted that Malta would oppose the trade ban if it came to a vote.
“It is not always necessary to apply a total ban to trade or fishery to recover stocks,” a Rural Affairs Ministry official told MaltaToday two weeks ago, adding that “listing in CITES will definitely increase the administrative costs of trade of the species, but will not necessarily contribute to its controlled catches and therefore recovery.”
However, the logic behind this argument has since been called into question by several leading conservation experts.
“A listing on CITES Appendix I would more likely reduce costs,” Aaron McLoughlin, Head of Marine Programme at the World Wildlife Fund’s European Policy Office in Brussels, said in response.
“The current scheme of attempted fisheries management, which ignores scientific advice, is costing the EU millions of euros in administrative and enforcement outlay. The satellites that track each delivery to tuna pens, fish by fish, cost a fortune. Plus, given that these controls are only operating in EU waters, and other active fishing grounds like Libya, they simply cannot work. A trade ban through a CITES Appendix I listing – for which Atlantic bluefin tuna amply fulfils every criteria – will bring the whole fishery into line and simplify the entire system. This is what’s urgently needed until this endangered species is back on the road to recovery.”
Similarly, Dr Colman O’Criodain, Wildlife Trade Policy Analyst at WWF’s International Species Programme, openly discredits the expenses argument.
“It is hard to see how Appendix I listing will increase the administrative costs of trade, since there will be virtually no trade, except for research purposes. In order to ensure that the Appendix I listing is respected there will be a continued need for enforcement, but the structures already exist to accommodate this.”
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen which of the EU’s two vastly different strategies – that of the Environment Commissioner who favours a total ban, or the Fisheries Commissioner who is likely to defend the status quo – will prevail in the long run.
But if Dr Joe Borg’s five-year stint as EU Fisheries Commissioner will be remembered for anything in years to come, it is likely to be for the ultimate fate of the Mediterranean’s most iconic marine predator, to be decided in his last months in office.

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