Libyan war could protect bluefin tuna in Mediterranean

A worker cuts a bluefin tuna into pieces in order to provide it to New York's top sushi restaurants at a fish market in Jersey City, New Jersey, March 12, 2010.

Jeremy Hobson: Oil is hovering around $112 a barrel today. Prices have jumped more than 30 percent since mid-February because tensions in places like Libya. And those tensions aren't just affecting oil prices.

As Christopher Werth reports, the lucrative Mediterranean blue fin tuna industry swims right through Libya.


Christopher Werth: The old seaside town of Sete is generally known in France as a charming fishing port. But it also harbors a few open secrets -- namely, Libyan-flagged tuna-fishing vessels docked alongside its main canals.

"This boat is Gaddafi's," says fisherman Gambo Meraki. His boat is anchored next to two Libyan ships registered under a company believed to be controlled by the Gaddafi regime.

How these Libyan boats ended up here is an interesting story. Nearly a decade ago, French tuna fishermen in Sete are said to have begun selling their boats to Libyan companies as traditional stocks of bluefin dropped, and Libya developed its own tuna industry.

Miriam Potter is with the French environmental group Robin des Bois. She says Libya has become a "black hole" for the illegal fishing of endangered bluefin tuna, and that under the deals, the French ships may fly Libyan flags, but they're still operated by the same French fishermen who sold them.

Miriam Potter: What it does is it buys the French fishermen access to water off the coast of Libya because it's a very rich spawning ground for bluefin tuna.

Environmental groups are calling on the French government to seize those Libyan ships.

But when I met up with Janvier Scannapieco, he had a different story about who owns the boats. Scannapieco's family has one of the largest tuna fishing operations in Sete. And when I found him, he was working on one of the several boats they operate with Libyan flags.

Janvier Scannapieco: Turn off the recorder. I want to tell you something.

Scannapieco asked me to stop recording. Then he told my interpreter the boats had never actually been sold to the Libyans.

Interpreter: He said that in fact it's a kind of mutual agreement. You tell the government that it's the Libyan boat. In fact, it belongs to them. And then they give money to the guy who is supposed to own the ship in Libya.

When I raised this with the French ministry in charge of fisheries, it said it doesn't track whether boats have actually been paid for. But those Libyan ships may not be fishing this year at all. The European Union has called for a suspension of Libya's rights to all bluefin tuna fishing.

In Sete, Southern France, I'm Christopher Werth for Markeptlace.

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