Happy tail?

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Hold your breath; you may be about to see one of the biggest and boldest U-turns in the history of mankind’s management of the seas.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat) is meeting this week in Marrakech; European negotiators arrived carrying a plan that would see bluefin tuna fishing suspended completely in the Mediterranean for a year or more.

Certainly something needs to happen. Recent years have seen fishermen deploying ever bigger and cleverer technologies in an effort to catch what is probably the most valuable fish in the sea.

The results have been entirely predictable; with catches soaring and illegal fishing rampant, numbers are crashing and boats are finding precious few of the really big fish that once made up their entire catch.

The European Commission ended this year’s season early, with fisheries commissioner Joe Borg complaining of “countless failures to properly implement the rules”, including French boats that had fished for three weeks and not declared any catches.

Last month, the biggest tuna-fishing nation, Spain, backed calls for a suspension, while Italy is also reportedly supporting a ban.

Japan, the destination for most of the catch, recently agreed cuts in its own tuna catches and has said for two years that Mediterranean quotas are unsustainably high, while the US has been the strongest voice for restraint.

By the time the meeting ends next Monday, will Iccat negotiators have been shown to be bold enough? There are many parties in the talks, such as Libya, whose positions are impossible to gauge; and even within the EU, France is thought to oppose any stringent moves.

Iccat’s decision will be closely watched. A suspension would be a marker, showing that even the most powerful commercial interests on the seas can be sublimated, and quickly, when the case for conservation is clear.

It will also be fascinating to see how member countries would go about putting a proportion of the tuna vessels “beyond use”, as the opposing factions used to say in Northern Ireland.

It is not a trite analogy; the key to saving the bluefin is, in the end, to reduce the number and size of boats chasing it.

Some countries, including the UK, have staged reductions in their fishing fleets in an attempt to spread the pain of falling quotas for species such as cod; but here, we would be talking about an abrupt halt, in vessels that are not designed to do anything but scoop up tuna.

The temptation will be to take a milder medicine; to shorten the fishing season still further, to create more “safe havens”, to cut quotas.

My instinct is that this is the way Iccat members will vote; if they do, we may be having the discussion all over again in two years time.

Source: bbc.co.uk