Tuesday, April 29, 2008

On The Trail Of The Last Tuna

The release of a Basque fishing boat captured by pirates off the coast of Somalia has attracted a lot of attention here for the drama surrounding the events and over whether a ransom has been paid to the pirates or not. Few people seem to ask the question of what the hell a Basque fishing boat is doing in the Indian Ocean in the first place. The roots of what has happened lie in overfishing, and in the reluctance of governments and the fishing industry to deal with that issue whilst there is still a single fish left in the sea.

An ever smaller part of the (wild) fish that is consumed in Europe actually comes from European waters. As fish stocks have declined sharply in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the fishing fleets (of which the Spanish is one of the biggest) have to go ever further a field in order to maintain themselves. The European Union has paid “aid” to a succession of African governments in return for these surrendering the fishing rights in their territorial waters. The unemployed local fishermen are left to their own devices, and in some cases they turn to using their boats as people carriers; the African immigrants arriving on the shores of the Canary Islands are in part a consequence of this.

In the case of tuna the situation is serious enough to drive fishing boats as far as the dangerous Somali coast. There seems to be an absolute unwillingness on the part of those involved to come to terms with the reality that they are dealing in a finite resource. That they should be in these waters fishing is bad enough, the suggestion that they should now do so with military protection is simply crazy. It says a lot about the way these things work that the best protection for the remaining tuna stocks may turn out to be the Somali pirates.


trevor said...

Tuna, like other maritime crops, is increasingly farmed and there are stable populations in most parts of the world apart from the Atlantic and the Med, so it's not really fair to suggest we're exhausting a finite resource. The Spanish have actually been taking tuna in substantial quantities from the Indian Ocean for almost 40 years now, although few people may have been aware of the fact. Contacts and conflicts between far-ranging commercial fishermen and providers for local markets are far older--see eg traces of Basque in Amerindian languages and late medieval Icelandic records of massacres of roaming Spanish fleets. Open debate is needed about where and how we get our fish--including the impact on disenfranchised populations, which in West Africa has been disastrous--rather than panic calls for a total halt to all but local harvesting.

Graeme said...

Trevor, I think you'll find that there is significant concern over tuna stocks in the Pacific as well - where the European fishermen don't reach it seems the Japanese do. All told, it's a pretty substantial share of the world's oceans. I take your point about the Spanish fishing in the Indian Ocean in the past, I assumed it was more recent. Open debate sounds great, but at the moment what is happening is that richer countries are pressurising poorer countries to surrender their fishing rights to avoid having to get their own fishing industry to face up to the consequences of overfishing.

StarHound said...

There is one key factor powering this - Demand. If anything demand for fish seems to be increasing and whilst there is lip service to conservation, what practical action has there been? I don't think new Sushi restaurants, tapas bar (or the new pintxo bar in Dublin, to pick on one)or various governments' healthy eating drives count much towards conservation. I see little or no evidence of real conservation across much Europe - business comes first. I don't recall ever seeing too much head scratching about the impact of the global fishing industry on the Third World. Perhaps the fishing industry is due it's 'Mad Cow' moment or maybe something like the recent shenanigans in England over battery produced chickens. In saying this, I am one of those creating the demand.....

The book 'The Basque History of the World' has been around for a while now and goes into the importance of fishing in Basque history and in particular how far Basques tavelled for their catches. It's rarely impartial but it's an entertaining read.


This snippet comes from the Basque newspaper 'Deia' via a Basque goverment Business Newsgroup (doesn't that sound excting?):

'A real catch: Basque fishing vessel kidnapped by pirates in Indian Ocean

The kidnapping of Basque fishing vessel Playa de Bakio in waters of the Indian Ocean just off the coast of Somalia has put the kind of fishing carried out by Basque freezer tuna fishers there firmly back on the front page. A third of the billing by Basque tuna vessels, considered Europe ’s second leading fleet, comes from the fish caught in Somali waters.

Today, the Basque freezer tuna fishing fleet has twenty-plus modern vessels of an average age of less than 15 years old. Basque shipping association ANASAC, which involves most of the major Basque vessel owners, accounts on its own for 60 per cent of the Spanish fleet and more than 40 per cent of the specialist European fleet, capturing more than 150,000 tons of tuna a year.

Modern vessels like the Txori-Gorri, built last year by Astilleros Murueta, are more than 100 metres long, 15 metres wide and with 10 metres at the prow and twenty or so tanks can store up to 1,500 tons of fish. The 6,500 horsepower Txori-Gorri has a top speed of 18 knots, a speed that has enabled several vessels in the Basque fleet working in the Indian Ocean to escape from pirates on different occasions.

World catches of tuna come to around 3 million tons a year. Some 35 tuna vessels from the European Union fish regularly in the Indian Ocean, fifteen of which are Basque vessels belonging to the new firms working out of the port of Bermeo and associates of ANASAC. The kidnapped Playa de Bakio belongs to one of these companies, the Pesquería Vasco Montañesa (Pevasa).

Vessels belonging to companies in the association and working in the Indian Ocean include Zuberoa, Doniene, Elai Alai, Campo Libre ALAI, Txori Toki, Txori Udin, Txori Argi, Txori Berri, Juan Ramón Egaña, Playa de Aritzatxu, Felipe Ruano, Playa de Bakio and Playa de Anzoras, the latter five being Pevasa ships. Each vessel costs around 30 million.

Summary of a news item published by Deia, 22 April 2008'

Graeme said...

I think the key difference between now and the past is the sheer size of the boats and the industrial nature of fishing - it's just not comparable to cod fishing off Iceland a few hundred years ago. I guess another advantage of fishing in these waters is the almost complete absence of control.

Colin said...


I know this has got nothing to do with fish - except that Mrs T was an indomitable old trout - but I wasn't sure you'd see it if I continued an earlier thread. . . . I thought you'd like to know of and possibly read a right-of-centre view of the similarities between now and the 70s we touched on yesterday or the day before. In the UK, I mean.


As for Espe and her shaking knees when she met Mrs T. - I'm sure the same happens to some atheists when they meet the Pope. I certainly [twice] personally experienced republicans going ga-ga in the presence of Princess Diana. It's perhaps more a function of fame/celebrity as it is of admiration/shared beliefs. Impossible to tell.

Graeme said...

Yes Colin, but Espe went to meet Mrs T because she was a believer - it wasn't like they just coincided by chance.

Btw, I get notification of all comments on the blog - so you don't need to worry about me not seeing them if you put them into the right thread ;)