法新社╱郭無患 2008-07-28 14:20
Spanish warship joins battle to protect Europe's tuna stocks
by Yacine Le Forestier
Sun Jul 27, 1:28 PM ET
VIGO, Spain (AFP) - Equipped with long-range cameras and ultra-sophisticated electronic equipment, a helicopter stands ready on the deck of the Tarifa, a Spanish navy frigate at the forefront of Europe's attempts to rein in illegal fishing of the threatened bluefin tuna.
Increased sea patrols, satellite surveillance and reconnaissance flights are just some of the unprecedented steps the European Union has deployed this year to try to control fishermen in the Mediterranean and Atlantic -- and protect this threatened species.
But with prices soaring -- mainly in Japan which alone imports at least 70 percent of bluefin tuna caught in the Mediterranean, according to European Commission officials -- the chase shows no sign of ending.
Catching illegal fishermen in the act is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack "because there is no foolproof system," said Marcelo Vasconcelos, the head of the European Fisheries Control Agency which inaugurated its new headquarters this month in the Spanish port of Vigo.
All the same, the chances have "increased a lot" because of the steps taken, he said with a smile.
For the 2008 campaign, 49 ships, 16 planes and 78 inspectors have been mobilised. The biggest operation was at the end of June, but monitoring will continue until the end of the year.
A control centre in Brussels gathers all the tracking data from satellites and radar.
"It has become hard to cheat these days," said Isabelle Perret, who is finishing her work at the centre.
The tracking, and the cross-checking of data between countries, led the European Commission -- the EU executive -- in mid-June to order a halt to large-scale tuna fishing in the Mediterranean, 15 days before it was due to end. The move triggered an outcry from French and Italian fishermen, who were backed by their governments.
-- Fisherman declare the catch, and the real catch --
The tuna vessels claimed they had caught only half their quotas. But the European inspectors were certain the quotas had been reached.
Surveillance has also detected boats spending up to 10 days at sea and then declaring nothing on their return -- a scenario that is considered hardly credible.
In another example two ships, one Spanish, the other French, were spotted fishing together to catch a school of tuna.
"The first declared twice the catch of the second. That's hard to believe when you know that at the end of the day they share the catch," said Cesar Deben, a top European Fisheries Commission official.
"The declared catch and the real catch, they're two different things."
Despite the tougher surveillance, the lure of money is proving even stronger.
The prices for bluefin tuna have been climbing for more than 10 years. On the wholesale markets, they tripled in just one year.
Japanese distributors, fond of bluefin for sushi, transport the fish direct by plane.
Faced with such demand, the number of fishing vessels far outweighs available fish stocks.
"The basic problem causing this fraud is the over-capacity of the fleet," said Cesar Deben.
European Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg believes it is time to start having real-time information on the catch.
For bluefin tuna "every day counts" when a fisherman can reach his quota in just one day.
"We are going to look into this problem in the 2009 season," he said, adding that officials are considering an electronic system of declaring catch details that would have to be filled in immediately and sent by satellite.