Illegal Bluefin tuna fishing continues unabated in the Mediterranean

Credit: Frederic Bassemayousse WWF

When the truck arrived at the harbor of Malta, thousands of bluefin tuna were hurriedly carried from the farms nearby and loaded inside. Fattening tuna farms are a common view when you fly over the Maltese coastline: tonnes of wild tuna are caught in their spawning ground, transferred to underwater cages and fattened with fish meal, sardines, mackerel and squid until they are fat enough to meet the Japanese valued standards for sushi.

But something strange happened this time: for each bluefin tuna loaded and accompanied by a legal certificate, another tuna ended up in the double-bottom part of the truck and was carried without any paperwork and under less-than-hygienic conditions. Once fully loaded with double the amount of bluefin than that declared, the truck left the Maltese island and travelled for days across the harbours of Italy and France until it reached its final destination in Spain. For years, hundreds of trucks have been following this same route, carrying over 2,500 tonnes of illegal bluefin tuna valued at 12 million euros, bypassing controls at several EU borders.

This is what Interpol and the Spanish Guardia Civil revealed late last year in one of the largest investigations ever conducted in the region, resulting in 79 arrests and the seizing of over 80 tonnes of bluefin tuna. The findings of the investigation confirmed a shocking reality: the volume of illicit bluefin tuna sold in Europe is still likely double that of the legal tuna trade.

Credit: Michel Gunther WWF

This case is critical and requires some serious considerations.

First, the illegal trade brings to light all the loopholes and failures of our system of border control. In the last year, the EU has championed the fight against illegal fishing outside its waters, but what about tightening controls within its borders? It’s clear that some urgent action is needed to avoid illegally caught seafood being traded across EU countries, reaching our plates, supporting criminal organizations while threatening our health. Illegal tuna is often not properly conserved and cases of food poisoning have resulted. At the last Commission meeting of ICCAT — the body responsible for managing global tuna stocks in Atlantic Waters -WWF sent a letter to the European Commission (one of the contracting parties) urging it to take the lead towards adoption of effective measures of controls and traceability to fight IUU tuna fishing in the Mediterranean.

Second, the amount of tuna that scientists estimate to be caught from the sea and on the basis of which they calculate annual fishing quotas does not take into account the vast amount of illegally caught tuna. Many more thousands of tonnes of wild tuna are caught from the sea every year, putting at risk the full recovery of the stock. WWF has therefore called on the ICCAT scientific body to take into consideration the ongoing illegal catches of bluefin tuna when providing its annual estimate of the stock to provide a more realistic overview of the health of the tuna population and define fishing quotas that allow a full recovery.

Unfortunately, despite the evidence and our repeated calls, in November 2018 the 50 tuna fishing nations and the EU moved on a multi-annual management plan and the agreed quota increase allowing for 32,240 tonnes of bluefin tuna to be caught in 2019 (17,623 t allocated to the EU), without matching this with the needed measures to tighten controls. An irresponsible decision that will benefit private and even criminal activities and that WWF will continue to condemn and fight until we will have secured the future of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean.

By Alessandro Buzzi, Bluefin Tuna regional Manager, WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative