Inadequate controls and monitoring off Italian coast could lead to collapse of swordfish population in next three years, warn conservationists.
A rampant lack of controls is allowing fishing boats in the Mediterranean to illegally pluck huge quantities of swordfish from waters off the Italian coast, according to an internal report by EU fishery inspectors.
One boat can catch up to two tons of swordfish per day.
The detailed investigation, conducted in March last year and obtained under a freedom of information request, found poor enforcement of fishing season closures by local authorities in southern Italy, with very few landing inspections of the active fleet.
Swordfish catches were often authorised by officials after the season’s close, and swordfish meat was visibly on sale in local shops and markets, and easily available in local restaurants.
“Control measures in place to monitor the respect of the swordfish fisheries closure are clearly inadequate,” says the paper, which the Guardian has seen. “Sanctions for selling Mediterranean swordfish during the closed fishing season, particularly where they were under-sized demonstrated a lack of enforcement and discouragement.”
The conservation group Oceana, which obtained the internal EU paper, estimates that swordfish stocks in the Mediterranean are currently 70% below sustainable levels.
But there is no stock management strategy for replenishing the swordfish population, which is threatened by a fleet of some 12,000 vessels - nearly 90% of which are EU-flagged.
Ilaria Vielmini, a marine scientist for Oceana, said that unless the EU introduced catch limits or quotas to protect the swordfish, the next scheduled stock assessment in 2017 could come too late to prevent a disaster.
“If we do not act now and over-fishing continues, the stock could be depleted,” she told the Guardian. “It has been over-fished for more than a decade now and no management procedures have been put in place. The bluefin tuna population was also very close to collapse until finally a management recovery plan was put in place in 2010. We need the same for swordfish or we could reap a collapse at the next stock assessment.”
Fishing for swordfish in the Mediterranean during the closed seasons of March, October and November contravenes a legally-binding international measure established in 2011 by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).
But the EU report found that very illegality of fishing out of season allowed the swordfish to retail at inflated prices of up to €30 per kilo, making it a highly lucrative trade.
Under the common fisheries policy, the EU has a legal obligation to bring the swordfish population back to a sustainable level by 2015, or 2020 at the very latest.
The illegal fishing of swordfish, bluefin tuna and sharks in the Mediterranean sea will be discussed at an ICATT meeting in Genoa, Italy next month.