France's stance on sushi fishery causes E.U. friction

Opposition to a recent Mediterranean tuna ban led to a standoff on the eve of its leadership position in the EU.

Running afoul: In January, French fishermen in Sète protested an EU tuna ban. Fishery experts say the ban is needed to prevent extinction.

The 36 French bluefin tuna boats in the Mediterranean steaming back to the southern port of Sète are filled with fishermen fuming about high fuel costs.

Now, the fishermen are steaming about the loss of two lucrative fishing weeks in the midst of the Mediterranean tuna-fishing season.

On June 16, all EU-flagged tuna boats were recalled by European Union fishing czar Joe Borg, who accused French and Italian fleets of falsifying their catches. Mr. Borg, who used measures designed for cases of protected species to stop the catch, saying the yearly tuna quota had already been reached.

The French fishing minister, Michel Barnier, expressed shock and outrage over the recall.

The tuna standoff comes just days before France's six-month EU presidency starting July 1, and only weeks after the Irish voted "no" on a key EU unity treaty. Mr. Barnier brought France's first major challenge to the EU Commission.

France lost the challenge, but Barnier insists that French boats only took 52 percent of their allowable catch.

"The commission hasn't given to France proof of its statistics," a spokesman in Barnier's office said on Thursday.

Barnier himself described a "problem of transparency and trust and of working together" with Brussels.

Tuna stocks are widely regarded as declining in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Oceans – owing both to a global sushi phenomenon that favors the prized fish and to purse-seine industrial fishing methods, where huge fixed-net trawlers sweep the oceans in a manner sometimes compared to a vacuum cleaner.

This year, prices for the fish rose from 7 to 9 €/kilo, up from 5 to 6 €/kilo in 2007.

The current tuna showdown comes amid sharp pressure from the public and environmental groups to protect the bluefin, and among corporate and political groups to protect the EU fishing industry, which has been suffering from higher gas prices that have hit its fleets.

Mr. Borg, backed by enhanced monitoring and inspection by plane, boat, and satellite, says many boats were under-declaring their catch.

A June 17 report mentioned that eight French boats reported no catch for nearly three weeks after the start of the season. He claimed evidence that some Italian boats had taken more than twice their quota. "Tuna fishing in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic is closed simply because the commission had enough facts and figures," says Nathalie Charbonneau, spokeswoman for Borg.

Marine scientists advocate a reduced bluefin quota of about 15,000 tons. This year's EU quota is 28,000 tons. EU boats complain that non-EU boats, from Turkey for example, don't have to follow EU quotas. The purse-seine methods are so effective that during the end of June the fleet can catch 10 percent of the entire quota in a day.

About 80 percent of Europe's tuna catch comes in the May-June season, according to EU statistics.

Fishing, like agriculture, is an emotional issue in France, which has ample coastline and a proud fleet. Lobby groups here, as well as in Spain and Italy, often speak of problems in Brussels among voting EU states that have no coast and no industry to protect.

Yet former fishermen from the fleets in Sète say that underreporting and quota-busting are not uncommon in an industry where elements like weather and the uncertainty of catchable fish are daily concerns.

The national French fishing trade union said on Wednesday, in an informal affirmation, that perhaps five of the huge tuna boats had misreported facts. But by the end of Wednesday the figure was revised to one boat by the French ministry.

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