Why the Threat to Bluefin Tuna Increased Because of War in Libya

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Tuna may not be on the menu for much longer. Several species of tuna are classified as endangered, threatened or near threatened. The main factor driving the species dangerously close to extinction is over fishing. An international conference known as ICCAT is debating the issue today in Istanbul, and participants will hear about another contributing factor to the reduced tuna stocks this year, the conflict in Libya. Seems some tuna fisherman took advantage of the chaos there to illegally catch spawning tuna in Libyan waters. The BBC environment correspondent Richard Black is following the story.

Richard Black: The exact events off the Libyan coast aren't entirely clear and perhaps they will become clear during the ICCAT meeting. But essentially there shouldn't really have been any fishing for bluefin off the Libyan coast. All of the big tuna boats have to carry these beacons if you like, they're called VMS systems, and they basically tell, they send out an electronic bleep every six hours saying hi, I'm here. And there's a map of this which has been released by ICCAT, and that shows there was quite a lot of ship activity off the Libyan coast. So, you've got two possibilities, either some of the Libyan registered vessels were doing the fishing, which they shouldn't have been because they weren't complying, or someone else was doing the fishing there, which they certainly shouldn't have been doing.

Werman: Right, so who was doing that fishing? In fact, a lot of Libyan boats were not trolling those waters off the coast during the war.

Black: That's right, that's what environmental groups tell us. They sort of maintain watches in the main tuna fishing ports, and they say the Libyan registered fleets weren't there. Now, ICCAT I'm told will have that information to identify which vessels were there, but so far that information isn't in the public domain, so we can't say for sure who it was. There are strands of evidence leading towards Italy. There was a remarkably frank letter which was sent to environmental groups by a chap who has long experience in the tuna fishery. He's worked in the industry for well, a couple of decades I think, judging by the terminology in his letter. And he sort of points the finger at a number of countries over the years, but Italy, specifically.

Werman: If a country like Italy is involved in this how might they be investigated, let alone prosecuted or punished?

Black: Well, one of the problems with this whole thing is that most of the inspection is done by the national authorities. So you have for the most part, you have for example, Italian authorities looking at Italian fishermen, and French authorities looking at French fishermen. And that's been a very, very cozy relationship, there's no doubt. A lot of these ports are actually quite small and you know, if the policemen went to school with the fishermen, you know, how do you think they're gonna regulate? Not very well has been the answer coming back. So, basically, I think the European commission will take a very strong lead. They have a relatively new inspectorate to look at fishery abuses. And the commissioner in charge of fisheries for the European Union is very determined to try and stamp out this kind of thing. So I think her unit will definitely be looking very hard.

Werman: And, Richard, as far as Libya itself, there's a new government there, but it is pretty weak. Is there any hope that the new government in Italy will be able to enforce their own fishing regulations any time soon? I mean dealing for 40 years with human rights and other issues like that, has there even been a consciousness in Libya of animals under threat of extinction?

Black: Yeah, I mean that's a very interesting question. And I think the same situation probably occurs along that north African coast in other countries as well. Libya was relatively well developed. It had quite a strong presence in the waters mainly for defense purposes of course. Would it now have the capacity to regulate? Well, if you're relying on sort of patrol boats and things, maybe not, but then all the boats as we said earlier, all the boats have the electronic systems, these electronic beacons, so it should be possible with a bit of international effort I think. And nowadays you know, satellites can be used as well. So I think the tools probably are there to do this internationally, provided everyone really wants to.

Werman: Richard Black, the BBC's environment correspondent. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Black: My pleasure.