Bluefin Tuna Ban Receives Conditional Support from France

5 February 2010

France announced Wednesday its support for adding bluefin tuna to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a move that would effectively ban all trade in the large, migratory fish. But environmentalists say France's insistence on an 18-month waiting period is a dangerous condition given the current decline in fish stocks.

The move caught many observers by surprise. Last year, France refused to support the initiative when Monaco asked for backing from its EU counterparts to present the motion to CITES as a collective (see Bridges Trade BioRes, 5 October 2009,

Bluefin tuna is prized in Japan where it is used to prepare high-grade sushi. Some 90 percent of Mediterranean tuna is exported to the Japanese market which, in turn, dictates prices.

Strong resistance expected

Like several other Mediterranean countries, France is under pressure from its fisheries industry to oppose the move.

"The government is really in a messy position," said Francois Wendling, head of a southern French fisheries association. "If waiting for scientific studies is so important, why is the government giving a position now? This is purely political."

Environmental groups now say the implementation date of September 2011 - which would allow another two fishing seasons to pass before a ban is implemented - is meant to appease the fisheries industry in the lead up to March regional elections.

"Asking for 18 months to implement this measure equates to waiting until there is no more bluefin tuna before acting," Greenpeace said in a statement. "The government is buying peace with the fishermen at a time of regional elections."

In his announcement, Bruno Le Maire, France's agriculture minister, said the delay was necessary to allow for further scientific investigation of the issue and possibly permit increased small-scale fishing in coastal waters.

"We're disappointed with the delay," said Sergi Tudela, head of the WWF's Mediterranean fisheries program. "They're saying that they need time to gather more scientific data, but there's more than enough information on the table already. We're asking them to drop that condition."

While the 18-month condition has raised the ire of many in the environmental community, many acknowledge the move is a step in the right direction.

Fisheries industry small but influential

Despite its relatively small size, France's fisheries industry has proven to be influential in the past. Prior to the country's refusal to support Monaco's CITES bid in Brussels, President Nicolas Sarkozy had been publicly supportive of an outright ban. Also, when protests by fishermen erupted in 2008, Paris was quick to silence them with an aid package including fuel subsidies and funding for modernising its fleet.

Because most European Union nations - including Italy - have now said they will support the CITES addition at the Fifteenth Conference of the Parties, several observers now say the ban could well become a reality. It is not yet clear whether former opponents Spain, Malta, Greece, and Cyprus will now vote on the issue. France, Italy, and Spain account for approximately half of the global bluefin tuna catch.

If Spain - which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency - continues to oppose the Appendix I addition it could make for an awkward moment when the country presents the EU's position on the matter at COP 15, which will be held from 13-25 March in Doha, Qatar.

Japan, which imports some 80 percent of the global bluefin tuna catch, has not officially stated how it will vote at next month's meeting. However, it is widely expected that Tokyo will oppose the move as it did when Sweden proposed a similar initiative in 1992.


France and Italy are expected to seek financial aid from Brussels to compensate fisheries workers who find themselves out of work as a result of the ban, which would target commercial ‘purse-seine' boats - high tech vessels that are responsible for some 80 percent of France's catch. Currently, only 28 of the country's approximately 200 tuna boats are purse-seiners. Traditional fishing for domestic markets will still be permitted.

Monaco's initiative seeks to address deficiencies in the current regulatory system managed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). By some estimates, Bluefin stocks have declined by as much as 75 percent in the past fifty years. And environmental groups have been quick to censure ICCAT for failing to reverse this trend.

A key issue compromising effective management of the industry is illegal, unregulated, and under-reported fishing practices. By ICCAT's own figures, the actual 2007 bluefin tuna catch was more than double the authorised limit of 29,500 tonnes. By adding bluefin tuna to Appendix I of CITES it would be recognised as a "species threatened with extinction" and the body's 175 member states would be obligated to ban all imports and exports. Other species currently listed under Appendix I are the Asian elephant, gorilla, tiger, and rhinoceros, among others.

ICTSD Reporting, "France backs delayed ban on bluefin tuna trade," FINANCIAL TIMES, 3 February 2010; "France backs bluefin tuna ban but after delay," REUTERS, 3 February 2010; "Europe Leans Toward Bluefin Trade Ban," THE NEW YORK TIMES, 4 February 2010; "France favors bluefin tuna export ban with delay," BUSINESS WEEK, 3 February 2010.

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