Evidence is emerging of unregulated and probably illegal tuna fishing in Libyan waters during this year’s conflict.
Signals recorded from boats’ electronic “black boxes” show a large presence inside Libyan waters, a major spawning ground for the endangered bluefin tuna.
Strands of evidence, including a letter from a former industry source, suggest the involvement of EU boats.
The issue will be aired this week at the annual meeting of Iccat, which regulates tuna fishing in the region.
The European Commission believes any fishing in Libyan waters this year could be judged illegal.
EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki told BBC News that she is also investigating whether Italian authorities made bilateral deals with Libya on tuna-fishing, which would contravene EU regulations.
The annual meeting of Iccat – the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas – opens inIstanbul on Friday, preceded by two days of talks within its Compliance Committee, which will begin to assess whether rules have been broken.
Damanaki’s office was set to request a suspension of all tuna fishing in Libyan waters?after the Libyan civil conflict began in February given that the breakdown in governance made regulation and monitoring difficult.
On 7 April, Libyan authorities, in one of a series of letters obtained by BBC News, told Iccat that because of the “recent and exceptional circumstances” they were going to suspend all tuna fishing in their waters voluntarily.
Three weeks later, Libya sent another letter to Iccat cancelling the suspension, without citing its reasons.
Iccat chairman Fabio Hazin asked Libya to reconsider. “It was too late to procure international observers for the vessels, as regulations require,” he said. “Iccat members did not have the time needed to discuss and approve Libya’s proposed fishing plan.”
In response to further correspondence, Dr Hazin and Compliance Committee chairman Christopher Rogers told Libyan official Nuredin Esarbout that “fishing by the Libyan fleet… in 2011 might be in contravention of Iccat rules”.
Damanaki further warned that any catches would be “well on track to be deemed illegal”.?She asked the EU member states to “monitor the activities of their national operators” to make sure they were not catching or trading potentially illegal fish.
She also expressed her willingness to use recently adopted EU rules on illegal fishing against anyone involved in such activities.
The statistical report prepared for the forthcoming meeting – also obtained by BBC News – includes a map showing the number of VMS signals received from various locations in the Mediterranean during the 2011 fishing season.
The biggest outburst of activity are in the spawning grounds where bluefin gather in the early summer in the waters off the Libyan coast.
The map does not show which vessels were operating there, although Iccat is believed to have this information.
According to environmental groups that monitor tuna-fishing ports, vessels authorised to fish in Libyan waters did not do so, remaining in French and Maltese ports all season.
If that is correct, it implies that boats from other Iccat member states were operating there, which would be illegal under fishing laws.
A letter recently sent to WWF and Greenpeace – which work closely together on the bluefin issue – by an experienced hand in the bluefin tuna fishery says illegal operations have been rife in the southern part of the Mediterranean for years.
At different times, he says, operators based in Spain, France, Malta and Italy have been involved.
How closely the source’s claims are related to the European Commission investigation of possible bilateral deals between Italy and Libya is not clear, as Damanaki preferred not to elaborate on the nature of that investigation.
From an ecological point of view, a plunder in Libyan waters would be disturbing.?Environment groups are urging Iccat and the EU to act swiftly.
WWF and other environment groups involved in the issue continue to warn that the basic problem across the region is over-capacity – there are simply too many boats that need to exceed their catch quotas in order to turn a profit.
In 2009, Iccat warned that the population of bluefin tuna had declined by more than 70 percent worldwide over the past four decades.
Last year Iccat set a 2011 quota of 12,900 tonnes, of which 5,756 tonnes could be caught by Europe’s 408 tuna vessels and 902 tonnes by Libyan ships.
In March this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declined to put the bluefin on the endangered species list but listed it as a species of concern.
But illegal fishing is widespread, creating a black market that conservationists estimate to be worth about $400 million per year.
Sources: BBC, theepochtimes, Reuters