Willie - one of our oceans campaigner - writes from the Mediterranean Sea.

At lengths upwards of three metres, a bluefin tuna is one of the giants in the world of fish. It’s about as long as a small sports car, but it can accelerate even faster. Its body is a shimmering example of perfection in hydrodynamics, so streamlined that the front fins even tuck into grooves in the body shape to cut down resistance. And they are warm-blooded, like you, me, and all the cuddly animals people care about. As adults, capable of living up to 30 years, they have little to fear in the open ocean, with only orcas and large sharks posing any sort of a threat.

Yet, here they are, numbers collapsed, facing extinction. It’s a sorry tail for a magnificent animal. It’s not surprising that there are historical accounts of bluefin. Their annual foray into the Mediterranean was certainly noticed by the Romans, who apparently caught them to feed their soldiers.

But up until the 1960s bluefin tuna fishing was relatively small-scale. It may seem scandalous to us today, but most fish were caught for sport, and there was very limited demand for the meat. In fact it’s thought that much of the bluefin caught in this way ended up as trash fish, and possibly even petfood (an irony clearly not lost on catfood brand Whiskas).

The problem started when some bright spark realised that the best way to capitalise on bluefin’s annual migration pattern was to target them when they came together to breed. In particular the development of purse-seine fisheries yielded big catches initially, and a dependable supply.

Of course supply needs demand. And that demand came mostly from Japan. Bluefin tuna became an internationally-desirable commodity. Through the 70s and 80s bluefin tuna quickly became a staple of Japanese cuisine, and especially sushi. Quite contrary to the assertions that bluefin is a traditional part of Japanese cuisine, it’s a relative newcomer. But the demand, hype, and cash involved have come together to spell disaster for bluefin. The collapse of Atlantic bluefin (the other species, in the Pacific, or down south, ain’t faring too well either…) has been driven by industrial scale fishing, on a hugely unsustainable scale.

And of course it’s easy to see why there is so much outrage. We’re not talking about artisanal fishing here, or diners who are depending on bluefin as a source of protein. In fact the purse seining and its associated ranching have effectively trampled all over any small-scale local fisheries that targeted bluefin. A few people are making a lot of money in driving a species towards extinction, and our politicians are apparently too impotent to stop it.

Bluefin tuna. An iconic fish, that has become a powerful symbol of all that’s wrong in our oceans.

Tuna in Cannes

Bluefin isn’t normally found in cans, of course, but last week it showed up at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France.

Ten Greenpeace activists recreated a bluefin cemetery on the beach, making a scene that wouldn’t have been out of place in a tragic horror movie. Tuna tail tombstones created a macabre sight on the sand. Greenpeace France also gave the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) an award for their failure to agree a trade ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna in March.

It may seem frivolous, but with the world’s media collected at Cannes, a mere stones’ throw from the harbours where France’s bluefin-plundering purse-seiners set sail, there was a story to be told. And of course it’s also why Greenpeace took action to stop the purse-seiners setting sail.

2010 is our last, best hope to save Atlantic bluefin, and nowhere is that more true than in France. With the failure of CITES, the pressure now falls squarely on ICCAT, the body responsible for ‘managing’ bluefin fisheries in the Mediterranean and Atlantic. So far, so bad. But in November ICCAT’s crucial meeting will be held in Paris, France.

We think we need action before that, which is why Greenpeace’s flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, has set sail in the Mediterranean as the bluefin fishing season starts.

Will it be, as the legend spelled out by the French activists said 'Thon Rouge : Fin?' (Bluefin tuna: the end?).

-- Willie

Join the call for a network of marine reserves that will protect 40% of the world's oceans.