Sacrificed in the name of sushi

If the fishing lobbies continue to hold sway then the tuna will go the way of the dodo

What is the point of the EU? Its original mandate, rising from the ashes of the Second World War, was to stop European nations attacking each other for a third time by binding them together in an economic, and eventually political, union. More recently, the EU has tried to make environmental management its raison d'être. Almost every chimney stack on the Continent is today subject to a barrage of European Commission regulations, and rightly so.

The idea is that, by pooling resources, Europeans can be strong enough to forge a greener future without sacrificing economic competitiveness. Climate-change and energy policies are both largely set in Brussels, even if most people (especially Conservatives) prefer to pretend otherwise. Much of this is to the good - but one area stands out as a spectacular EU failure: fisheries.

Instead of helping establish shared management of shared resources, the Common Fisheries Policy has managed to elevate "the tragedy of the commons" into a central organising principle. Each nation can fish its neighbour's waters to destruction, while government ministers from fishing nations battle it out at each annual meeting to set quotas far above scientific recommendations. As a result, the North Sea is almost dead: some areas of the sea floor are ploughed up by trawlers ten times every year. The surprise is not that once-plentiful stocks are on the verge of collapse, but that anything survives at all.

The EU recently blew a chance to redeem itself by helping save one of the charismatic megafauna of the deep: the bluefin tuna. This sleek, fast-moving predator is on the verge of extinction, and with individual specimens worth up to $100,000 (£61,215) apiece on the Tokyo sushi market, Mediterranean fishing nations are desperate to continue the unsustainable slaughter. There is an international management body called the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, (ICCAT, popularly renamed the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna), but its quotas will, according to a scientific report in the journal Conservation Letters, allow boats legally to catch every single adult fish next season.

It may seem odd that the industry would rather destroy a species entirely than submit to sustainable management, but fishermen today are severely short-sighted. Already Mitsubishi, the biggest tuna trading company, is rumoured to be stockpiling frozen bluefin in expectation of a post-extinction price jump. The European Commission recently tried to cobble together a policy supporting a listing of the bluefin under Cites - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species - which could impose a total ban. But this was blocked by the bluefin-fishing EU nations France, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain, and the required number of votes to form a "qualified majority" failed to materialise.

With the EU out of the picture, the fate of the bluefin seems to rest with the tiny kingdom of Monaco, whose head of state, Prince Albert, has formally proposed a Cites listing. If Cites accepts the recommendation, internationally traded bluefin sushi will have the same illegal status as rhino horn and tiger skins.

If not, and if the fishing lobbies continue to hold sway in Brussels, then the tuna will go the way of the dodo - as early as next year, as the fleet sails one final time, to catch the last fish in the sea.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule