Why the failure of the bluefin tuna summit is bad for people and the environment

Bluefin tuna
© OCEANA / LX, © OCEANA / Pepe Ceballos
The ICCAT summit on bluefin tuna was stained by a lack of transparency, allegations of illegality and disturbing examples of financial interests trampling over environmental concerns, says James Thornton

What creature can live for up to 40 years, grow to 650kg, dive to below 1000m, accelerate faster than a Porsche and is worth more than $100,000? One might think that such a magnificent and valuable beast must be highly regarded - even celebrated. Instead, the bluefin tuna has been disastrously managed and devastatingly overfished.

This weekend, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) rounded up two weeks of talks between intergovernmental representatives deciding, among other things, the fate of this spectacular marine species. Unfortunately, given the way the meeting was handled and the eventual decision taken, you could be forgiven for thinking there was no critical environmental concern here at all.

Bluefin tuna has long been used by environmental groups as a powerful example to illustrate how the oceans are being mismanaged. If governments are unable to make effective decisions about a species widely acknowledged to be in danger of commercial extinction, how can we expect them to manage effectively the myriad species that make up the biodiversity of our oceans? The answer to this question from ICCAT resounds: 'We can't.'

ICCAT’s big decision this year has been to reduce the amount of bluefin tuna that can be caught in the Mediterranean in 2011 to 12,900 tonnes, a reduction of 600 tonnes compared with last year’s catch. It is difficult to see this measure as anything other than an ineffective sop to the inevitable media and NGO pressure that builds around any decisions on bluefin tuna – it isn’t the strong move to protect the species that NGOs and conservation-minded governments have been calling for.

Maintaining the status quo

The bluefin tuna’s high price-tag invites considerable overfishing. When illegal fishing has been taken into account, ICCAT’s decision this weekend only maintains the status quo.

This was to be expected. ClientEarth supplied the EU with briefings explaining its legal obligations in the weeks leading up to the summit. The EU ignored this advice. As the ICCAT meeting began, the indications were that the EU’s negotiating position was illegal due to the very limited targets it contained, which wouldn’t allow the EU to achieve obligations set out in the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. This is one of the few pieces of legislation that explicitly makes the important connection between fisheries and environmental concerns, and also requires the rebuilding of fish stocks by 2020.

Before delegates arrived in Paris, EU member states had to agree what the European Commission should say on their behalf at ICCAT. This highly political process was marked by a division between those member states with a financial interest in keeping the bluefin tuna fishery open and countries such as the UK and the Netherlands, which have spoken out repeatedly in support of higher levels of protection.

The European Council’s agreed position was heavily influenced by those member states with commercial interests in keeping the fishery open. The council effectively overruled Maria Damanaki, the European fisheries commissioner, who sought to protect the bluefin tuna, and also demonstrated real unwillingness on the part of some states to comply with environmental legislation.

Behind closed doors

The ramifications of ICCAT don’t stop there. The very nature of how the meeting was conducted should worry anyone concerned about the environment or how governments handle such issues. Negotiations in Paris took place largely behind closed doors, with access being restricted even in the case of journalists and NGO observers with a legitimate interest in documenting proceedings. This raises questions about the transparency of such important negotiations, and makes it extremely difficult for anyone, NGO or otherwise, to challenge governments about the way they conduct themselves on the world stage.

At the recent biodiversity summit in Nagoya the EU committed to implement measures to bring the planet back ‘from the brink of ecological disaster’. Grand words, but people need to know what role their leaders are playing in the international negotiations to secure that future, so that when they are not living up to their legal obligations, they can be effectively challenged.

The results of ICCAT indicate that when it comes to decision-making in such talks, financial interests continue to take precedence over ecological necessity and even legal obligation. If people can’t challenge their leaders openly and effectively, they can’t effect change. This is bad news for people – and also for bluefin tuna.

James Thornton is CEO of ClientEarth

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