(Or: Talk about ethics)

Oil, arms, timber trade… and tuna. Crises, particularly civil unrest, can be a perfect environment for making profit, as lack of control paves the way for some unscrupulous operators to the detriment of human rights, the people or the environment.

On Monday, BBC environment correspondent Richard Black published an article revealing that in the summer of 2011, despite the war and the NATO navy presence in Libyan waters, some fishing vessels entered the area to plunder Bluefin tuna. A map extracted from an official document, exposed by the BBC, shows intense presence of these vessels off the Libyan coast.

bluefin tuna

Black's article points out possible involvement of Italian fishing vessels. No need to remind you that Italy was one of several countries participating in aerial bombardment operations in Libya. But why is tuna fishing in Libya important?

A bit of history

The control over and access to tuna resources off the coast of Libya has been an issue for the Bluefin tuna industry over the last few years.

In 2005 Libya declared a fisheries protection zone (FPZ). In this area, one of world’s most important spawning areas, resources would be managed by the Libyan government, and access by foreign fleets would only be possible upon permission granted by Libya.

Libya would charge fees to foreign fleets coming into its FPZ to fish for Bluefin, as it has been the case with French, Italian and Spanish vessels in recent past. Some French ship owners subsequently re-flagged a whole fleet of vessels under the Libyan flag to ensure access to the area.

Access to the Libyan FPZ was also said to be heavily enforced. It was said that if you entered the protection zone without permission, Libya's fast patrol boat Maradona would come, arrest you and take you back to Tripoli. Sometimes – so I was told – you could hear on the radio that "Maradona is coming". True or not, fishing fleets would not dare to come into the Libyan FPZ without an agreement with the government to do so.

The 2011 bluefin tuna fishing season

When the recent armed conflict started, the Libyan government sent a letter to the international body that manages the fishery, ICCAT, stating that they would not allow its fleet to fish for Bluefin tuna, neither would they authorize any Bluefin tuna fishing in Libyan waters. Under present circumstances there was no way there would be effective control to ensure compliance with fisheries regulations.

Unluckily, the Libyan government wrote again to ICCAT a few weeks later saying that they had reconsidered the previous decision, which was now “canceled and void”. ICCAT replied that this was not possible, since there wouldn't be regional observers or international inspections, neither these or other conditions would be met.

Maria Damanaki, EU Fisheries Commissioner, wrote to ICCAT in very clear terms on 19 May 2011: "In view of the potential non-compliance with ICCAT Conservation and Management Measures, bluefin tuna caught by the Libyan fleet will be well on track to be deemed illegal". Importantly the letter adds: "The Commission will consider that no private trade agreement involving EU nationals and another ICCAT Contracting Party will be authorized in 2011 and thus that no EU vessel will fish in the Libyan fishing zone.”

What happened then?

A few ship owners may have taken advantage of this terrible crisis.

The map exposed by the BBC corresponds to satellite signals of these vessels and was elaborated by the ICCAT Secretariat. Obviously, if the ICCAT Secretariat was receiving these positions, so were the flag states of the vessels involved. The good thing is that it is perfectly possible for ICCAT to identify the names and flags of those vessels. And that is exactly what we will be demanding today at the meeting of the ICCAT Commission in Istanbul.

If Bluefin tuna fleets have been taking advantage of Libya's lack of capacity to patrol its own waters at a time its people were suffering a war, this would only add yet another disgraceful chapter to the greedy history of the Bluefin tuna industry.

Even more, if the flag states of the vessels were among the ones involved in the international military operation, this should also be condemned by the international community in the strongest terms. It has a name: pillaging.

ICCAT must identify these vessels, their flags and protect the Bluefin tuna in Libyan waters for the future. Declaring a sanctuary in these waters, as part of a network of no fishing areas in the Mediterranean is the perfect way to achieve this.

Sebastian Losada is oceans senior policy adviser to Greenpeace International and has worked on the problems associated with Bluefin tuna overfishing for the last five years.