Things have become ugly in the Mediterranean: over the weekend, fishermen and Greenpeace activists squared off over the fate of the Critically Endangered bluefin tuna. One run-in, in which Greenpeace worked to free tuna from fishermen’s nets, left one activist in the hospital after a fisherman sunk a hook in the activist’s leg. Meanwhile, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has announced a ‘Blue Rage’ campaign that will target illegal fishing of bluefin tuna.
The escalating maneuvers by Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd come after environmentalists were disappointed this year by the failure of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to protect the bluefin tuna. Heavy lobbying from Japan sunk the resolution. Most bluefin tuna ends up in restaurants in Japan, where it is served as sushi and sashimi. As the species has become increasingly scarce, prices have risen: a single fish often brings in over 100,000 US dollars.
Since 1970 Atlantic bluefin tuna populations have dropped by 80 percent due to industrialized overfishing. International scientists have repeatedly called for a total ban on Atlantic bluefin in order to save the species from extinction, but to date short-term industry concerns have won out over the species’ long-term survival.
As top predators, bluefin tuna play a vital role in the marine ecosystem. Photo courtesy of NOAA.
On Friday activists with Greenpeace attempted to save bluefin tuna from legally sanctioned French purse seine fisheries. Employing sand bags, activists planned to weigh down one side of the net to free the caught fish. Greenpeace’s attempt to free the fish led to attacks by fishermen who, according to Greenpeace, threw onions, attacked with sticks, rammed the Greenpeace inflatable boats, and punctured boats using knives, fish hooks, and grappling irons. Greenpeace lost two boats.
“Today’s nonviolent Greenpeace actions to free bluefin tuna are necessary if we want to keep these fish in our seas and maintain a healthy Mediterranean for the future,” Oliver Knowles, Greenpeace International oceans campaigner, said in a press release. “We have taken action to set free bluefin tuna that were caught only hours ago in huge nets by this destructive fishing fleet and pulled back in order to avoid more violence from other fishing vessels.”
One of the activists, Frank Hewetson, was hooked with a gaffe hook in the leg and; according to Hewetson the fishermen then tugged the Greenpeace boat toward them by using the hook caught in his leg. The activist was eventually airlifted to a nearby hospital. Following surgery on the leg, the 45-year-old father-of-two is said to be recovering. The incident comes after an activist last summer was punched repeatedly in the face when she attempted to board one of the fisheries’ boats.
The Federation of Maltese Aquaculture Producers said that the Greenpeace activists had “sought confrontation, and got the confrontation they wanted,” adding that Greenpeace “was violent and unlawful. They alone bear the blame for the consequences of yesterday’s incidents.”
Bertrand Wendling, the head of the French fishing company Sathoan targeted by activists, said the organization had interfered with legal business and threatened fishermen’s wages.
Greenpeace has defended their actions, arguing that even though the boat was legally sanctioned to fish for bluefin, the regulating body for bluefin tuna—the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)—has time and again failed to effectively protect the species from overfishing.
The bluefin tuna. Photo courtesy of NOAA.
“It didn’t matter if the fishery was legal, if it was pushing the species towards extinction and that we would continue to take action to stop the purse seining,” Willie MacKenzie, one of the activists, wrote on a Greenpeace blog following the incident.
Criticism over ICCAT has increased steadily over the past decade. Last year ICCAT’s scientists called for a total suspension of fishing activity, instead ICCAT set a quota for this fishing season of 13,500 tons. Yet, the actual number of fish taken each season is far higher than ICCAT’s quota due to illegal fishing. The activist organization, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, says it will be focusing its sites on illegal fishing vessels, which it estimates takes three-fourths of the total catch.
The organization says on its website that it will do “everything possible within the boundaries of international law”. Sea Shepherd, which was started by an ex-Greenpeace activist, is known for taking more aggressive action than Greenpeace, including ramming other ships and disabling whaling vessels while they wait in harbor.
“We want to stop the poachers,” director of Sea Shepherd, Lamya Essemlali, told the AFP. She added that she supported Greenpeace recent action since, even if the fishing was legally sanctioned because “it’s all endangering stocks of the fish.”
Sea Shepherd has gained increased popularity since Animal Planet began filming a TV show about the group called Whale Wars.
For its part, Greenpeace was back out on the sea today, successfully freeing bluefin tuna from a Tunisian tug boat.
France’s national fisheries body said that Greenpeace was “violent” since they were bent on “the destruction of a work tool”. In addition, Wendling argued that bluefin fisheries needed protection from Greenpeace: “we have requested the French state intervene and ensure the security of our sailors.”
“I think they are desperate people with a desperate fishing industry that they and others have driven to the point of extinction,” the injured activist, Hewetson, told the Sunday Times. “I think they have only themselves to blame for mismanaging such an important resource.”
An analysis last year by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) predicted that the Mediterranean bluefin tuna will become functionally extinct by 2012 if the fishery isn’t closed. According to the report Atlantic bluefin breeding population’s were cut in half between 2002 and 2007, while the size of breeding fish also fell by half over a fifteen year period.
(04/05/2010) As a child I read about the near-extinction of the American bison. Once the dominant species on America’s Great Plains, I remember books illustrating how train-travelers would set their guns on open windows and shoot down bison by the hundreds as the locomotive sped through what was left of the wild west. The American bison plunged from an estimated 30 million to a few hundred at the opening of the 20th century. When I read about the bison’s demise I remember thinking, with the characteristic superiority of a child, how such a thing could never happen today, that society has, in a word, ‘progressed’. Grown-up now, the world has made me wiser: last month the international organization CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) struck down a ban on the Critically Endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna. The story of the Atlantic bluefin tuna is a long and mostly irrational one—that is if one looks at the Atlantic bluefin from a scientific, ecologic, moral, or common-sense perspective.
(03/18/2010) A proposal to totally ban the trade in the Critically Endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna failed at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), surprising many who saw positive signs leading up to the meeting of a successful ban.
(11/24/2009) Restaurants sampled in New York and Colorado are serving up bluefin tuna without informing their customers know they are dining on an endangered species, according to a new study in PLoS ONE. Using DNA barcoding researchers from the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History found that nearly a third of tuna sampled in one restaurant in Colorado and thirty restaurants in New York served bluefin tuna, and nine of the restaurants did not label the tuna as bluefin.