Conflict in Libya, 'Fattening Farms' in Mediterranean Among Threats to Bluefin Protection Efforts

Bluefin tuna for sale at a market in Japan.

During the early summer months, when civil war raged in Libya, electronic monitoring systems reported a surprise finding: a significant number of what were believed to be fishing vessels off the North African country's coast. Libya said its boats could not leave due to the NATO blockade. So who was fishing in its rich Mediterranean waters?

The speculation that European boats, particularly those from Italy or Malta, were taking advantage of the conflict to fish unregulated off the Libyan coast sparked fierce debate at this week's meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) in Istanbul -- but the row ended inconclusively.

Electronic Tracking System Adopted
"The boats [off the Libyan coast] were believed to be EU boats, but it couldn't be proven. You can't tell which boat a VMS [vessel monitoring system] signal came from, just that there was a boat there," Susan Lieberman, the director of international policy at the Pew Environment Group and head of its ICCAT delegation, told TreeHugger in a phone interview. "We would like each boat to have a unique number for tracking by all organizations, not just ICCAT."

What environmental groups hoping to protect the critically endangered bluefin tuna did succeed in doing at the ICCAT meeting was secure adoption of an electronic tracking system that will eliminate some of the fraud in documenting catch quotas. According to a report Pew released last month, last year over 140 percent more bluefin tuna meat was sold that had supposedly been caught.

'Fattening Farms' Source of Concern
"Enforcement and control is delinquent around the Mediterranean -- it's a big problem," Lieberman said after the conclusion of this year's ICCAT meeting. One of the biggest problems is "fattening farms," facilities off the coast of Turkey and other Mediterranean countries where small fish caught during the short season are bulked up on fatty food to provide a year-round supply of tuna, primarily to Japan, which consumes 80 percent of the Mediterranean catch.

"The [bluefin] quota is supposed to include reporting of exactly what goes into farms and what goes out, but there is under-reporting of what goes in, which is counted in tons, not by the number of fish. It's much easier to enforce quotas if you're just talking about wild fish," Lieberman told TreeHugger.

Sharks Still At Risk
The new electronic system adopted by ICCAT will eliminate some of the fraud, she added: "It's not perfect, but it will help. There are still loopholes in terms of compliance and the need for double-checking -- it's still a self-reporting system. But it will track what goes in and out of farms and what Japan imports so the numbers can be checked against each other."

Pew characterized the overall results of the meeting as "Progress, Yes. Success, No," noting that ICCAT failed to ban the use of wire fishing-line leaders, which increase shark by-catch, and that the organization needs to do more to address the 50,000 ecologically damaging Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) proliferating in the world's oceans.

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Conflict in Libya, 'Fattening Farms' in Mediterranean Among Threats to Bluefin Protection Efforts
The annual International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas meeting wraps up with no resolution about the 'mystery boats' fishing off the Libyan coast and continued threats posed by 'fattening farms' and 'FADs.'

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