| culture TUNA FISHING |
Bluefin tuna being loaded into the hold of an Italian purse seiner of about 30 metres apart to the main fishing line, which runs to tens of kilometres in length.
P ROF I TABLE C ATCH Back on the Madonna Tal-Hniena, the crew start reeling in the line at around 11pm, having left port at midday and deployed the line throughout the afternoon. The men fish at night because tuna come closer to the surface in the dark. Five hours later, there were three tuna and two swordfish on deck – all relatively small, yet enough to leave a handsome profit.
‘It’s an encouraging catch,’ Charles tells his brother Tony. ‘So we can take a day off tomorrow.’
‘Now is our chance to make some money,’ Tony replies.
Charles turns and sees me studying the prints of saints that hang in the boat’s cabin. The most intriguing depicts a vessel in the foreground and God rising in the background, forming a protective embrace around the boat. ‘We have a lot of saints,’ he says with a chuckle.
The launch, constructed of wood, is stable and durable. Charles keeps it in impeccable shape: every year, he gives it a fresh layer of paint. But it’s sturdiness makes it slow, unwieldy and cumbersome in the water. ‘We were going to get an autopilot,’ Charles says. ‘But how can we justify such a cost when our future seems so uncertain and our income so unpredictable? I think my brother and I are at the end of the line in this family business.’
The Atlantic bluefin tuna is divided into two subpopulations in the western and eastern Atlantic. It’s the eastern subpopulation that has been ravaged by overfishing.
The fish are caught after they migrate into the calm, warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea to spawn – scooped up in purse-seine nets and transferred to floating cages that are then towed to tuna ranches. There, the fish are fed for about six months before being slaughtered and sold.
It’s estimated that the breeding population has fallen by about 85 per cent compared with historical levels. And as catch statistics reveal a trend towards ever smaller fish being caught, scientists fear that breeding-age tuna – more than four years old and heavier than 35 kilograms – are being systematically wiped out.
In a bid to control overexploitation, catch quotas are tightening: this year’s quota was 13,500 tonnes, down from 19,950 tonnes in 2009. Monitoring has also been intensified, but illegal fishing is still prevalent, and the true catch is acknowledged to be higher than the quota. Frequent discrepancies between catch and trade statistics are an indication that tuna ranches under-declare the tuna they take in. (The tuna ranches explain these discrepancies by natural growth during the fattening stage, but natural growth isn’t as high as the discrepancies indicate, according to scientists and fishery officials.)
‘Farm capacity is unsustainably high, and the ranches are part of the spiral of overexploitation,’ says Gemma Parkes of WWF. As with other fish farming, there is also the problem of a low biomass conversion ratio: a tuna needs 20 kilograms or more of mackerel to gain an extra kilogram of weight.
In Malta – which has a tuna-ranching capacity of 12,300 tonnes, the world’s highest – tuna fattening has become big business. Tuna now constitute the island’s third-largest export commodity, generating about €100million annually. The tuna ranchers, as well as the purse-seine fishermen, have become millionaires.
In contrast, the Maltese long-line fishermen have seen their work become increasingly difficult, and are no better off, financially, than before. Yet the long-line fishermen don’t have a voice – most can’t even read or write. They are organised into two cooperatives: about 16 are members of the Ghaqda Kooperativa Tas-Sajd, and about 40 belong to the Fishermen Cooperative. The secretary of the former is the owner of a trawler, while the secretary of the latter, Raymond Bugeja, owns a tuna ranch and one of only two purse-seiners in Malta (which didn’t work this year as Malta’s quota was allocated to long-line fishermen).
Bugeja has a direct commercial stake in industrial tuna fishing, but he denies having any conflict of interest. ‘I assist, and speak on the behalf of, the Maltese long-line tuna fishermen all year round, seven days a week,’ he tells me. ‘My main income comes from the tuna farm, but my father and I operate a traditional tuna-fishing boat, and I have other businesses. I believe in diversity.’
The influence of tuna ranching can be seen in the way that Malta has changed its national policy in regard to tuna conservation. Ten years ago, Malta was calling for the establishment of a tuna conservation zone in the central Mediterranean where only small-scale traditional fishing would be allowed. But in a position paper sent to the EU earlier this year, the Maltese government wrote that controls should continue to rest with the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) in order to avoid ‘dual governance of the species’, despite the fact that the ICCAT has so far failed to curb either overfishing or illegal fishing.
In October, ICCAT scientists published a report that suggested that in order to give the tuna a 60 per cent chance of recovery by 2022, next year’s quota should be set ‘between zero and the current 13,500 tonnes’.
WWF lambasted the ICCAT’s apparent willingness to give up on the tuna (‘Would you get on a plane that has a 60 per cent chance of landing safely?’ asks Parkes) and ambiguity on quotas. It suggested that in order to ensure a ‘high probability of species recovery’, the quota needs to be below 6,000 tonnes, and no-fishing zones should be established in half a dozen key spawning grounds. This will mean, according to Parkes, that the activities of purse seiners and tuna ranches will have to halt, and that the Mediterranean tuna fishery will have to become ‘small-scale’.
40 www.geographical.co.uk DECEMBER 2010