Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Bluefin and the EU: a match not made in heaven

So, it’s been over a month since the CITES conference came to an end. For bluefin tuna lovers, not eaters, the conference was a great disappointment.

The inclusion of Atlantic bluefin tuna on Annex I to the Convention was rejected and European nations could not even vote in the final and most important stage of proceedings; a vote, that if it had been successful, would have effectively meant for a complete ban on trading of bluefin tuna, and would have given this highly prized species a chance to recover.

On the basis that scientific evidence made such a ban so self evident, it is important to reflect on why the European political system could not stand up for this endangered species.


At first, many were hopeful when the EU agreed on a common position supporting a ban of bluefin tuna trade shortly before the beginning of the CITES conference. However, there was also skepticism in that the EU position came with stringent conditions. In this, instead of supporting an immediate, complete, worldwide ban, the EU position only supported a ban of industrial fishing of bluefin tuna to come into effect sometime in the future, and only once it had been proven again that bluefin tuna is indeed on its way to extinction. Reading further into this, in essence the EU was indirectly trying to change the rules of the CITES game and indeed, before the meeting, it was perceived as highly questionable whether the conditional position would be acceptable under the terms of CITES.

The very outcome and failure of the CITES meeting to ban trade of bluefin tuna in many ways provides us with the answer to this political conundrum.


The weak EU position also raised questions about the benefit of having a common EU position at such meetings.
The EU is not a member of CITES, the individual member states are. With the common EU position, the 27 member states lost their right to promote their individual position on the listing and had to represent the common EU position. In a situation where a majority of member states would have supported a complete ban without conditions this would possibly have had a stronger persuasive effect on other CITES members than the weak EU position had.

Again, things are never as clear cut as they appear and this issue take us to the very foundation of the EU; the Lisbon Treaty.


Until the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in December 2009, fisheries were under the exclusive mandate of the EU. If the EU did not act, the matter remained unregulated and member states could not intervene. Since the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty, this is no longer the case.

Fisheries are now largely a shared competence, meaning that the EU shall only act when the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the member states but can be better achieved at EU level. In the absence of EU measures, member states may act individually.

However, to make things (even) less clear, not all fisheries matters are now a shared competence. Issues relating to the conservation of marine biological resources remain an exclusive competence of the EU but it has not been finally resolved yet, whether the inclusion of a species such as the bluefin tuna on Annex I would fall within the scope of this exception.

Whatever the outcome, the whole fiasco surrounding the call for a listing of bluefin tuna means the EU and its members states need not only to reflect on why, in the end, such a pitiful response was made, but also to evaluate what must be done when a similar situation is apparent. Let’s just hope that when that situation arises it is a positive outcome for a united European front, but also a positive one for bluefin and other species so desperately needing protection.

By Maja-Alexandra Dittel

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