Bluefin tuna boats in the Mediterranean Sea continue to catch many more fish than they report, a study concludes.
Commissioned by the Pew Environment Group, it finds that last year 140% more bluefin meat from the Med entered the market than was reported as caught.
The fishery’s regulator, Iccat, put new measures in place two years ago aimed at stopping over-fishing, but Pew found there were still holes in the system.
The Atlantic bluefin is so depleted as to qualify as a threatened species.
In 2008, member governments of Iccat – the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas – agreed to implement a system of paper-based catch records, in principle allowing fish to be tracked from the sea to their final destination.
This was intended to remedy severe flaws in the system that had been identified in a number of reports, including one by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
But the Pew investigation found several ways in which the numbers can still be fiddled.
“The ICIJ report covered the year to 2008, and in response Iccat said ‘well that was then’ – so we thought, ‘we’ll see’,” said Lee Crockett, who directs Pew’s Atlantic tuna work.
“And as you can see, they clearly haven’t fixed the problem – in fact, the gap [between the reported and total catches] has increased, which is a pretty clear indication that they need to do a much better job of making sure that the catch reports track the quota,” he told BBC News.
The research involved scanning through available trade data – exports from EU nations, Japanese customs documents, the US Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service – and comparing these with catch reports from Iccat’s member governments.
As such, Pew argues that it probably under-estimates the scale of the problem as it does not include catches by straightforward illegal fishing operations, for which there are by definition no records.
In 2008, they calculate, just over 38,000 tonnes from the Med was traded internationally, against a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) quota of 29,082 tonnes.
In 2010, the quota had been slashed to 13,525 tonnes; but Pew’s estimate for the actual catch was just over 35,000 tonnes.
Iccat’s scientific advisers recently reported that in their eyes, there had probably been a marked drop in the actual catch in the last few years.
“Declared catches in 2010 were significantly below the 2010 TAC of 13,500 tonnes,” they wrote.
“However, some [Iccat member countries] did not report their 2010 catch.”
After they are caught, many of the tuna are towed in cages to “farms” or “ranches” in Spain, Croatia and Malta.
There, they are fattened before being killed and exported – the vast majority to Japan, where the flesh is highly prized in sashimi.
Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi, who researched the data for the Pew report, said this was where many of the problems lay.
“Most of the over-catch being produced in the Med in my opinion comes not from illegal fishing boats but from the legal purse seine fleet,” he said.
“And the question is, how are these vessels over-catching when they’re supposed to have an independent observer on board, when they’re taken to a farm where another observer is waiting to watch the transfer to the farm?
“What really happens is there is no effective way to actually calculate and certify first of all the amount in kilos that’s being transferred into a cage, and second the number of fish.”
Divers are sent down into the purse seine nets to estimate the number of fish and the total mass caught – but Dr Mielgo, a former tuna diver himself, said this was a job that could only be done accurately by an experienced operative.