Take care of our tuna

by John Hocevar

June 18, 2009

“Take care of our tuna, because they are going to exterminate them.” – Maltese fisherman talking about the big boats using purse seine nets and drift nets, which he said were responsible for the fact that he was no longer able to find many fish. 

The Rainbow Warrior is patrolling the waters of the southern Mediterranean.  We spent most of yesterday listening to fishermen.  We also carried out a lot of inspections, ensuring that boats were legally licensed to fish, but mostly… we listened.  Since few fishermen would be willing to speak openly over the radio, we visited their boats with our inflatable Zodiacs.  The first challenge was finding a suitable language.  Here in the eastern Mediterranean, we have already had conversations in Spanish, Italian, French, Arabic, English, and Maltese.  Then there is the fact that many of the fishermen are pretty angry – about the disappearing fish, and about the regulations that have been put in place to try to stop the declines.   

As we approached a trawler yesterday, the captain got more and more animated the closer we got, shouting, pointing, and even turning color.  The Greenpeace boat driver was from Tunisia, and reported that the guy was threatening to shoot us if we didn’t leave immediately.  We managed to strike up a conversation without anyone pulling out the heavy artillery, and the story the captain told was one that we had already heard many times from other fishermen.  He would prefer to be fishing, but there were no longer enough fish to make it profitable.  Instead, he was using his boat to help tow cages full of bluefin tuna caught by bigger, more expensive boats.  It was slow, boring work; what was once a way of life had been replaced with something that was just a paycheck.  

The owners of the bluefin fleets know their days are numbered, but are so far choosing to carry on with business as usual instead of doing what is necessary to ensure the survival of the tuna and fishery alike. And as often is the case, it’s not a question of jobs vs. the environment.  Which jobs are we talking about?  The large number of small-boat fishermen who have been connected to the sea for generations?  Or the guys on the multi-million dollar purse seiners owned by fat cats often based thousands of miles away?  The responsible fishermen who hope their kids and grandkids will be able to follow in their footsteps, or the ones who flaunt regulations in order to make as much money as they can as quickly as possible? 

We spoke to several longliners, which lay out lines that can stretch 30-50 miles dragging thousands of hooks.  This is a pretty indiscriminate way to catch fish, and bycatch is a serious problem.  Even those who were fishing for other species would still catch a number of bluefin, probably more than allowed by law.  However, the impact the longliners have on bluefin populations is a mere fraction of the damage done by the purse seine fleets, which can catch hundreds of tons of bluefin in a single day.  So while things have reached the point where every fish counts, we couldn’t help but see these small boat fishermen as victims and potential allies rather than a serious part of the problem.   

Finding common ground with the bluefin purse seiners is a bit more difficult, and so far they have not let us get close to them.  The only exception was when we came across a purse seiner in the process of transferring her catch to a transport cage, a process that we were able to capture on film.  This is another indication of how dire the bluefin situation has become: there are so few large fish left in the Med that today the most common practice is for fishermen to transfer the small bluefin they catch to floating cages, which are towed to giant tuna ranches in Malta and Tunisia to be fattened and eventually turned into sushi. 

This is an outrage on multiple levels.  First, we are witnessing the disappearance of northern bluefin tuna, one of the most remarkable species with which we share this planet. Worse still, this is happening despite the fact that it could be avoided if leaders in the US and Europe would simply demand that managers follow the best available scientific advice.  This creates not only an ecological outrage, but an economic and social one as well.  People who have fished here for generations are losing their livelihoods.  A way of life is disappearing along with the bluefin. 

Will ICCAT’s members take care of the tuna this year?  Or will they allow them to be exterminated?  It’s too early to say for sure, but you can be sure that we will not sit idly by. 

For the Oceans –  

John Hocevar

Oceans Campaign Director

Greenpeace USA

John Hocevar

By John Hocevar

An accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine biologist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in 2004.

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