Published March 12, 2008 07:37 AM
ROME (Reuters) - There are far too many boats fishing for tuna in the Mediterranean, putting further strain on stocks of a species already threatened with extinction, environmental group WWF said in a report published on Wednesday.
Atlantic bluefin tuna, sometimes described as "floating goldmines" due to their spectacular price tag when sold for sushi, are under threat from over-fishing and an international agreement sets quotas on how many each country can land.
But in a study into the number and size of fishing vessels, WWF, formerly the World Wildlife Fund, found there were at least one third more boats than needed to meet legal quotas.
"It is crazy," said WWF's Sergi Tudela. "The numerous new fleets are so modern and costly that fishermen are forced to fish illegally just to survive -- and worse still they are fishing themselves out of a job."
Atlantic bluefin tuna, which spawn in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean, can be worth $10,000-15,000 each in Japan, where they are eaten raw as sushi.
WWF said the quotas, agreed at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), are too lax to protect the fish, but even those limits are being flouted.
The conservation group said many countries, including Italy, Spain, Croatia and Libya, do not declare their full catches of tuna -- circumventing the quotas which are meant to ensure the species survives massive demand from gourmets.
While the actual amount of over-fishing can be hard to estimate, the size of the fleet indicates it must be happening on a large scale. WWF said the Mediterranean fleet should shed 229 of its 617 vessels to remain within the quotas.
"At a minimum, the report shows, Mediterranean fleets would have to fish 42,000 tons of tuna just to cover costs -- implying some 13,000 tons of illegal catch," it said.
The group -- which is promoting a boycott of bluefin tuna among consumers, restaurants and retailers -- said the European Union had granted 18 million euros of subsidies into growing the tuna fishing fleet between 1993 and 2006.
(Reporting by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Catherine Evans)