The Mediterranean's Tuna Wars

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FISH FIGHT: Industrial companies employ big, expensive equipment to find, catch and fatten tuna; traditional fleets, using techniques from ancient times, above' are no match

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Were Cervantes ever to sail his boat around the Mediterranean's 46,000-km coastline, he would hear similar tales in languages from Arabic to Italian. The 22 countries that border the Med face a battle over resources that raises a stark question: To what extent can traditional lifestyles and economic activities coexist with a global appetite for the produce of the Mediterranean region?

Few events so eloquently capture the tussle between international commerce and the locals over the Mediterranean's resources as the annual summer hunt for bluefin tuna. Much of the Med's tuna is no longer caught by traditional means. High-tech "tuna ranches" began appearing in the Med in the late '90s and have proliferated over the past decade — fish farms consisting of circular floating cages about 50 m in diameter and 50 m deep, set up 2-3 km from shore. The ranches are most often controlled not by small European operators but by large multinational corporations. In the cages, tuna fatten up on smaller fish, often for months at a time, before they are slaughtered and shipped off to Japan — the market for nearly 80% of the Mediterranean bluefin catch. The new large-scale ranches have wreaked havoc with the traditional fishermen's earnings. "The European market has totally changed in just two or three years," says Sevilla, director of Almadrade Capo Plata, one of Spain's few remaining traditional tuna-trapping companies.

To combat the tuna ranches, Sevilla and other trappers need to halt their prey long before it reaches the Mediterranean's open water. From late May, shoals of tuna begin their annual migration from the Atlantic through the Strait of Gibraltar, before spending one month breeding in the Med's temperate water. The traditional fishermen's contest against the industrial ranches has become so fierce during the past few years that some marine biologists and environmental activists fear it could threaten the very survival of the Mediterranean bluefin. The volume of tuna caught in the Mediterranean has soared in just a few years. Indeed, it tripled between the summer of 2002 and late last year, according to a report last November by Advanced Tuna Ranching Technologies (ATRT), a consultancy firm in Madrid.

Why? Blame the worldwide taste for sushi. European Union fishing subsidies haven't helped, either — they enable fishermen to buy new boat engines, the better to compete against the high-tech fleets that have set up in the Mediterranean. Many Spanish and French fishing companies have used the subsidies to overhaul their fleets, installing sonar systems and new engines and hugely increasing capacity. "Fishermen used to have old wooden boats, but now most boats in the Mediterranean are brand new," says Alain Fonteneau, a marine biologist for the French government-run Institute of Development Research in Montpellier. Other technologies have contributed; tuna-ranching companies fly spotter planes throughout May over prime breeding grounds off Algeria, Libya and Turkey to track shoals of tuna. (During the rest of the breeding season, the flights are banned by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas [iccat], which sets international rules.)


Convinced that countries are fishing the Mediterranean's stock into extinction, the wwf last year commissioned industry consultants to calculate the real tonnage of tuna catches. Its findings, released earlier this month, show widespread violations of the Mediterranean's iccat quota of 32,000 tons a year, mostly by industrial companies whose farm-fattened exports escape rigid scrutiny. Bill Hogarth, the chairman of iccat, says he finds the wwf findings convincing. "If we continue like this the stock will crash," says Hogarth, who heads the U.S. government's fisheries service at the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Hogarth blames lax European government enforcement — the E.U. has only 25 fishing inspectors to monitor national inspection procedures all across Europe — and the eagerness of poor North African countries to join the global tuna trade. "It's like a poor man's Lotto," Hogarth says. "I've seen one tuna sell for $60,000."

Despite such sums, prices on Europe's docksides have plummeted from about €10 per kg five years ago to as little as half that today. Paradoxically — you might think that a collapsing price indicated an expanding supply — environmental groups believe that reflects massive overfishing. With fish, excessive harvesting can drive down the price until stocks suddenly run out. "It's like in a war," says Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi, chief executive officer for ATRT, who authored the wwf report. "You can kill 1 million people the first year, 2 million the next year, 20 million people the year after that. Eventually you will end the war because there will be no more people to kill."

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