A new report by the conservation group, WWF, launched on Monday criticizes the EU for subsidizing the expansion of tuna farming in the Mediterranean — an activity which the organization says "could lead to the commercial extinction of the already overexploited and highly endangered bluefin tuna in just a few years".
The report, Tuna farming in the Mediterranean: the bluefin tuna stock at stake, blames the EU for helping tuna farming — which consists of fattening bluefin tuna caught alive in the wild — with aquaculture subsidies. It argues that tuna farming is not aquaculture, where fish are bred and reared in captivity.
The global conservation organization also criticizes the expansion and modernization of purse seiners — the only fishing boats used to catch bluefin tuna alive — through the EU's Financial Instrument for Fishing Guidance (FIFG).
According to WWF, almost all bluefin tuna are now caught by high-tech, large-scale purse seiners, and transferred to cages to feed the booming tuna farming industry.
The report conservatively estimates that in total up to €19–20 million of public funds have been allocated to the different stages of the tuna farming industry in EU Mediterranean waters since 1997.
"These subsidies should be immediately eliminated as they are directly resulting in overfishing of the bluefin tuna and could lead to the collapse of the stock in the region within the next few years," said Dr Simon Cripps, Director of WWF's global Marine Programme. "Giving money to the unsustainable tuna farming is not in line with the agreements that were made under the reform of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy."
WWF urges the EU to "eliminate the loopholes" in its legislation that allow tuna farms to benefit from aquaculture subsidies, and to set up specific quota for tuna caging.
The global conservation organization also calls for a better and more transparent reporting system of the tuna catch, to ensure the traceability of all traded tuna originating from farms in the Mediterranean.
The report also shows that demands from the tuna farming industry have created increasing fishing pressure on some local small fish stocks, such as the anchovy, to feed the caged tuna.
"Unless purse seine fishing and tuna farming are regarded as steps of the same process, management of the bluefin tuna stock will not be sustainable," said Paolo Guglielmi, Head of the Marine Unit at WWF Mediterranean Programme. "The recent EU accession of countries like Malta or Cyprus, which have important tuna farming activities, makes it even more urgent to switch to better policies and practices."
Meanwhile, WWF calls for a strict and immediate moratorium on the development of new tuna farms in the Mediterranean.
Tuna farming is driven mainly by the Japanese market demand for "sushi" and "sashimi".
It increased by close to 50 per cent in the Mediterranean last year, to reach 21,000 tonnes, which is not compatible with the conservation of a healthy bluefin tuna population.
Mediterranean countries where tuna farms are to be found are Spain, Italy, Turkey, Malta, Cyprus, Croatia, Tunisia, and Libya. Other countries, such as France, don't have tuna farms but are involved in the capture of tuna.
Outside the Mediterranean, the tuna farming industry is also expanding rapidly in countries such as Australia, Mexico, the US and Japan.
The fattening of tuna in cages requires to catch the fish alive, with the help of specific fishing gears, the purse seiners. Once caught, tuna is transferred alive to special towing cages, which are then transported to the farm sites. Input season typically extends from May/June to July/September, depending on the country. Then fish are transferred to pens, where they are fattened for a relatively short time to improve the oil content of the flesh in order to meet the Japanese market standards. The fattening period usually lasts for 6-7 months, since the peak of the demand by the Japanese market occurs by the end of the year.