Inconvenient truth about fish
Award-winning British journalist Charles Clover plunged into the depths of global fisheries to emerge with some shocking discoveries revealed in a film that will première in Malta on Thursday.
In 1988 something changed. Fishermen's catch suddenly plummeted but the world refused to acknowledge the reasons for it. For over 20 years, the debate went round in circles - and this was in Malta's interest. Now, one man presents what could be an inconvenient truth.
Charles Clover goes to great lengths to explain why the ocean has reached the limits of what it is capable of providing in his critically-acclaimed film The End of the Line.
The film attempts to give the lie to the notion that the ocean is an inexhaustible resource, showing that the major species of edible fish are headed for extinction. And bluefin tuna, which currently represents one per cent of Malta's GDP, is the next in line.
"Bluefin tuna is the poster boy for our film which is about the decline of fish stocks across the world because of greed... If the bluefin is wiped out, it will be Europe's own disaster because the EU is the most powerful player," Mr Clover said.
Last week, the European Commission proposed the EU should press for a ban on the international trade of tuna to come into force next year, saying it was deeply concerned that the overfishing of the species was seriously depleting stocks.
The European Parliament back-ed the ban, but Maltese MEPs im-mediately moved to resist. Last year, Malta exported €86.3 million worth of bluefin tuna in 11 months - making it the country's third most exported commodity.
However, Mr Clover is questioning wisdom of investing millions of euros to build into Malta's economy a reliance on a finite natural resource.
"Wild fish catches peaked in 1988 and have been on the way down ever since. The Food and Agriculture Organisation admits that 80 per cent of the world's fish stocks are either fully exploited, over exploited or recovering from depletion," Mr Clover said.
He described one of the most shocking discoveries during his research: "It was when I realised that the scientific advice was that the bluefin quota in 2007 should be 10,000 tonnes for recovery, 15,000 tonnes to be sustainable. But the EU and ICCAT connived to set it at 29,500 tonnes - and the fishermen caught 61,000 tonnes. At that moment, I realised we were filming something rather like the last buffalo hunt."
Countries opposing a ban on the international trade of tuna, including Malta, argue that the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (an intergovernmental fishery organisation) to manage fisheries is a better option.
Last Friday, the government said as much in its position submitted to the European Council. But the majority of member states are supporting a ban, acknowledging ICCAT's failure to control the depletion of stocks.
Mr Clover said: "What I know about Mediterranean fisheries is that they are disgracefully over-exploited, and that management is rudimentary and primitive compared with many other parts of the world."
Maltese fishermen cannot be blamed for wiping out tuna from the oceans - the majority still use traditional methods. But tuna farms have grown into a multi-million euro industry, controlled by a handful of players.
The country is referred to as "the global capital of tuna farms", with Azzopardi Fisheries as the major stakeholder. Thousands of tuna are brought to Malta by foreign fishermen to be fattened and later exported to the Japanese market, where one fish can fetch over €100,000.
The tuna on the market for local consumption is that which does not meet the quality demanded abroad, fishermen have told The Sunday Times. So a ban on its international trade is likely to result in better quality fish for local consumption.
But for the ban to enter into force, the European Commission's proposal needs the support of a weighted majority of EU member states. With France and Italy reversing their original position against the ban, only Spain, Cyprus and Greece now agree with Malta, and this is not enough to block the Commission's recommendation.
Then, it would need to win support of two-thirds of around 175 countries attending the summit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species on March 13 to 15.
For Mr Clover, the ban is essential: "I believe it is the only answer now". ICCAT needs to be reformed to include citizens' interests, not only the industry, he says. Only after that can management of the sector be handed back to it. "Not before."
The première is being screened at St James Cavalier on Thursday. Limited seats are available; e-mail: [email protected].