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Tuna defeat's hypocritical roots

Richard Black | 17:24 UK time, Thursday, 18 March 2010

The frustration of conservation groups at the outcome of Thursday's tuna trade discussions was almost palpable.

The proposal to ban international trade in the Atlantic bluefin discussed at the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting - tabled by Monaco and backed by all of the important conservation organisations working on the issue around the Mediterranean - fell by a substantial majority.

The numbers (described in the news story linked above) are a bit complex because there were actually two votes, but basically delegations voted against the proposal by almost two to one.

Recall that passing a CITES motion necessitates gaining a two-thirds majority, and it's clear just how far short the numbers fell.

Tuna_and_fishermanThe world already has organisations that are supposed to regulate commercial fisheries and ensure catches remain below danger levels. They are the Regional Fisheries Management Organisations; the one in question here is the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat).

So poorly has this body performed its task (it was declared a "disgrace" by an indepenent performance review two years ago) that conservationists have another way of interpreting its initials - the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tunas.

And it was in frustration with Iccat's annual habit of setting quotas higher than its scientists recommended (they have advised zero quotas for the last few years) that conservationists turned to a CITES ban as an alternative way of reducing the catch.

Well, it hasn't worked; and there are perhaps three major reasons why.

Firstly, there is the issue of consistency.

The largest bloc supporting the bid was the European Union.

If it is so keen to see vast reductions in tuna catches, it could accomplish this through Iccat. Instead it gets the largest share of the annual tuna catch from the Mediterranean, and as recently as the last Iccat meeting was lobbying hard against the moratorium that its own scientists had recommended.

The EU is deeply divided on the issue, with the tuna-fishing countries of Italy, Spain, and France routinely deploying the argument that its fishermen would suffer under a moratorium.

Sushi_chefJapan - the largest bluefin consumer by a distance - has argued that it is up to the EU to put Iccat in order, rather than using a body such as CITES designed to restrict trade in endangered species.

It is a convenient argument for Japan to make; but the EU's position - giving bigger catch quotas with one hand and demanding a trade ban with the other - is so obviously inconsistent as to give it added legitimacy.

(A sign of frustration with the EU's bloc-voting strictures emerged in the day's second vote. The 27 countries were supposed to abstain on this - it sought a stronger ban than the EU had collectively decided to back - but in the secret ballot, I've been told, the UK and possibly some other EU nations as well defied the common position and voted with their consciences - a move with politically explosive potential.)

You might think that in lobbying against a CITES ban, the tuna fishers are proof of the argument that turkeys can indeed vote for Christmas, as they will have nothing to catch if the bluefin population continues to fall; you might think they would have been lobbying for a suspension rather than against it.

And this is the second point: fisheries economics isn't as simple as that, particularly in the modern era when big vessels can traverse wide tracts of ocean in search of new hauls.

As a commodity becomes scarcer, the price goes up; investing the extra short-term revenue accrued, at favourable interest rates, can be more profitable than cutting catches to ensure a sustainable fishery.

Sometimes - this is the real world, after all - fishermen also gain financial compensation from their governments if they have to scrap the ships that brought the resource to its knees in the first place.

The end of the line is sometimes a profitable place to be.

The third issue is that in a sense, what countries were arguing about here isn't fish but the universal cake.

The cake can be anything desirable. In the climate change arena, it's the atmosphere's "emissions space"; in fisheries, it's the total catch available.

It is the tragedy of the commons, with nations as the actors.

Patrick_van_Klaveren_of_Monaco_and_Masanori_Miyahara_of_JapanAlways, the proponents of restriction argue for scaling down the size of the cake.

Always, the national interest expresses itself in trying to increase the size of that country's share of the cake.

The results are entirely predictable.

In recent years, new countries have entered the annual Mediterranean tuna race - North African countries such as Libya and Tunisia that now have enough capacity to catch a year's worth of bluefin if EU nations pulled out.

Any nation is allowed to exempt itself from CITES rulings; Japan had indicated it would exempt itself from a tuna trade ban, which meant that if North African nations did the same, the legal trade from the Med to Japan would have continued with no net impact other than on EU fleets which would now be out of the race.

These concerns led to the EU supporting only a weakened version of the CITES resolution that would have deferred the tuna ban for a year, and that could have been lifted without ever coming into effect if Iccat were to adopt measures considered to put the fishery on the road to recovery.

The report that labelled Iccat as a "disgrace" really saved its ire for member governments that routinely undermine the organisation's conservation mandate, not least by turning a blind eye to dodgy activities (such as going over quota, and even fishing illegally) by their national fleets:

"Iccat's failure to meet its objectives is due in large part to the lack of compliance by many of its CPCs (member governements)... CPCs have consistently failed to... implement monitoring, control and surveillance arrangements on nationals and national companies."

And why have national authorities not been in the habit of persecuting such matters? Because each country's agents could argue - and they were right - that all the others were doing it too, and asked themselves: why should those foreigners get a bigger slice of the cake?

The real irony here is that the North African competition only flourished because European companies (with the blessing of member governments, as is necessary) allowed and even encouraged it.

As the same report concluded:

"Developed states use foreign investment rules to place excess or additional capacity owned by their nationals or companies under the flag of developing Contracting Parties. In many cases these developing countries have inadequate monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) arrangements..."

So what happens now?

As Jane Lyder, acting head of the US delegation at the CITES meeting in Doha, said:

"The responsibility is now on Iccat to manage the fishery in a sustainable manner. The world will be watching."

But not, presumably, holding its breath.


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