As Red Pepper goes to press, the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin is arriving in the Mediterranean and is being prepared for battle. For most people, the daring marine direct action of Sea Shepherd is associated with attempts to stop Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean. But now the activists are turning their attention away from the ice-cold Antarctic to the Mediterranean Sea. Illegal fishing here, in the most regulated yet most overexploited sea in the world, is driving the populations of bluefin tuna to extinction.
Captain Paul Watson and his crew of eco-vigilantes have waged something akin to a war against the Japanese whalers who have killed whales inside the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. The sanctuary, established by the International Whaling Commission in 1996, is supposed to protect whales. A global moratorium on commercial whaling has also banned the practice since 1986. However, governments have been unwilling to uphold international treaties and agreements to protect marine wildlife and habitats. With Australia and Japan in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement, it is no surprise that the Australian Labour government does little to end the illegal slaughter of whales by the Japanese whaling fleet, despite making big promises to do so during past elections.
Fishing for problems
This reluctance to uphold international conservation measures is found the world over, with little protection offered to threatened flora and fauna species. The world's oceans are in crisis with almost all the major fish stocks on the brink of collapse. The UN recently reported that if things carry on as at present, all of the world's main fisheries will have collapsed by 2048.
Industrial fishing has experienced a huge growth due to technological developments since the 1960s. New types of fishing gear have been introduced, ships have become faster and are able to stay out at sea for longer. Long-range sonar, which was previously only available to the military, has become available for civilian use and gives fishermen the ability to trace fish virtually anywhere. The scale of fishing has reached unprecedented proportions, something the fish populations simply cannot take.
Trawling, driftnetting, longlining and purse seining are common fishing methods used by the thousands of vessels that set out onto the Mediterranean Sea every day. Driftnets and longlines are a huge threat to the larger marine animals, which can easily get entangled in them, with mostly fatal consequences.
Nearly half the species of sharks, rays and skates in the Mediterranean are listed as endangered, making it the most dangerous place on earth for these animals. Several species of large predatory sharks, such as the hammerhead and thresher shark, have been massacred, with more than 97 per cent of their Mediterranean populations killed off in the past 200 years. All turtle species in the Mediterranean are endangered, as well as most types of whales and dolphins. More than four fifths of the bluefin tuna population has been killed off within the past 50 years.
The European Union has been handing out subsidies to the fishing industry for over 40 years. Spain, France, Italy and Greece are the biggest beneficiaries and account for the most landings of fish. Of the 88,500 vessels that made up the EU fishing fleet in 2007, the great majority operated from these countries. A large part of the funding was for the construction of new vessels, even though the EU fleet must shrink dramatically if it is to get to any sustainable size. This overcapacity of fishing fleets is a worldwide problem, with the global fishing fleet currently operating at two and a half times the capacity that it can fish sustainably.
The various EU fisheries policies have done little to curb the problems of overfishing, fleet overcapacity, heavy subsidies and the general low economic resilience of the industry. Calls for conservation measures have been largely ignored and recently even the European Commission acknowledged that the current regulations fail to protect marine wildlife and habitats adequately. With 80 per cent of all species in EU waters overfished and subsidised EU trawlers also emptying the waters in other parts of the world, the continued handouts are directly driving the emptying of the oceans.
Farmed to extinction
Bluefin tuna migrates to the Mediterranean each spring. Traditional fishing for the bluefin has taken place throughout recorded history, but industrial fishing for this species has been expanding rapidly in recent years. Bluefin, considered a delicacy in Japan and other Asian countries, fetches high prices, with one 232-kilogram fish being sold for 16.28 million yen (US$175,000) in Japan in January.
Most of the bluefin tuna ends up in tuna farms. These 'ranges' do not breed and rear fish in captivity, instead relying on wild tuna, caught from already declining stocks. Purse seining fleets catch the fish and transfer them to pens where they are fattened until they meet market requirements. More than 70 such farms have opened in the Mediterranean in less than 15 years, with a total holding capacity of over 60,000 tons, twice the total allowed catch quota. Their feed, which consists of smaller fish, is also fished from local stocks. Serious concerns have already been expressed about the Mediterranean populations of anchovy, which are overexploited in many areas and often used to feed the farmed tuna.
There is little monitoring of what goes on in the farms. The pens often hold more fish than allowed and the many farms operate at levels of overproduction, which has effects on the local environment as well as the wellbeing of the animals. Many illegal fishing vessels, such as those from Turkey, land their catches in farms. Once penned, there is no way of tracing where fish have originated from.
Governments and some mainstream conservation groups argue that aquaculture (where fish are bred and reared in captivity) is the way forward, with the industry just needing to 'clean up'. But can such a badly regulated part of an already heavily corrupted and largely illegal industry clean up? Governments have failed by letting this lucrative industry spiral out of control.
Sea Shepherd, which has worked at the frontline of ocean conservation for 33 years, is now launching 'Operation Blue Rage' to put a halt to the illegal fishing plague that has infested the Mediterranean. The operation will last up to three months, starting in late May. The conservation group operates as a citizen-run enforcement organisation, using direct action tactics to intervene against illegal practices at sea. With so little progress to protect bluefin in recent years, Sea Shepherd's approach may well turn out to be the only one able to stop the pirates from plundering the Mediterranean Sea and all unique life in it.
Wietse van der Werf works as ship's carpenter and engineer on the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin. For more about the campaign see