The Mediterranean's Tuna Wars

  • Share
  • Read Later

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

(3 of 3)

European officials blame Asian shipping companies, which skirt quota rules by transferring tuna directly from industrial ranches in the Mediterranean to Japan-bound ships, without ever touching land and without reporting the size of their catch. "We cannot monitor it," says a European Commission official in Brussels. Tuna-ranching companies have become sensitive to environmental criticism. Spain's largest company, Ricardo Fuentes and Sons, declined to speak to Time, as did Azzopardi Fisheries in Malta, which controls some of the Mediterranean's richest breeding grounds. A.J.D. Tuna Limited, which Azzopardi owns with Japanese partners, says on its website that since industrial fish farming is essential to feed the world's population, "we are constantly working to try and reduce the impact of our industry on the environment." The company says it operates its fish farms only half the year in order to conserve the sea's stocks. "We Japanese don't fish anymore, we only buy from other people," says a Japanese buyer who works for another company, checking the quality of the tuna as it is off-loaded at Sevilla's refrigerated warehouse in Barbate, and who refused to be named. "That is because [in Japan] we have nothing left to fish."

Environmentalists want the rules tightened. At iccat's next meeting in Dubrovnik, Croatia, in November, environmental groups and the U.S. will be attempting to crack down on overfishing. But Bregazzi is gloomy. "You are talking to a very pessimistic man," he says. "Bluefin tuna is on the verge of collapse, if not collapsing as we speak."


The debate over who controls the Mediterranean's resources goes beyond fishing. About 30% of the world's shipping passes through the Mediterranean. "Oil pollution from ships is a major problem," says Paul Mifsud, coordinator of the United Nations Environment Program's Mediterranean Action Plan, which is headquartered in Athens. About 100,000-150,000 tons of oil is spilled into the Mediterranean every year from accidents and operational dumping by ships, according to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council, which monitors ocean oil spills. Industrial waste, too, pollutes the waters. Egyptians have long called their port city, Alexandria, the jewel of the Mediterranean, but it has lately earned another reputation as "the outstanding champion of pollution," according to Mifsud. Factories dump waste water into the port's bays and into Lake Maryut, 1 km from the sea. Egypt's government blames the cargo traffic from the Suez Canal and oil tankers from the Persian Gulf. "We not only have to manage Egypt but the whole world's waste," says Mohammed Borhan, director general of coastal and maritime zone management for the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency.

Pollution, like overfishing, threatens fish stocks in the Med — and traditional fishing communities. Hundreds of thousands of people around the Mediterranean make their living from the sea, and E.U. officials believe a crash in fish stocks would impact many towns and villages. At the same time, the E.U. is trying to save fish by coaxing fishermen into other professions. After years of political wrangling, the European Commission agreed last month on a €3.8 billion, seven-year program to help fishermen shift into other industries. E.U. funds currently help fishermen retire at 55 and pay to train them for new careers in tourism.

Whatever the economic incentives to change their ways, in many small towns there is a sense of a way of life passing away — often yielding to an easier, more lucrative modern existence. In Garrucha, old men fish; their sons do not. "There are other options now," says Cervantes, the fishermen's federation president. For fishermen, perhaps. But for the tuna?

With reporting by Anthee Carassava/Athens, Jeff Israely/Rome, Amany Radwan/Cairo and Jane Walker/Madrid

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. Next