(CN) - A European court decision that partially invalidates the premature prohibition on netting bluefin tuna in five Mediterranean countries may result in a wave of suits by operators in these nations.
A Maltese company that fattens tuna after capture on the open sea sought damages when the European Commission shut down capture of bluefin tuna with purse seine nets two weeks early in 2008, in anticipation of Mediterranean countries fulfilling their quotas.
The eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna fishing season runs through spring until the species starts to spawn. For European Union countries, the season ends June 30 - but in 2008, the European Commission ordered it closed early for purse seine fishers, which encircle fish with large nets.
Purse seiners in Greece, France, Italy, Cyprus and Malta were told to quit 2008 operations by June 16. But based on Spain's proportionally smaller fleet, it allowed Spain to continue fishing for one more week, until June 23.
AJD Tuna sued the Maltese fisheries authority for damages when it disallowed the company from importing French- and Italian-caught bluefin, which it fattens in cages to sell on the market. The case was watched as an indicator for the validity of the prohibition.
The Luxembourg-based Court of Justice said the reasoning behind the regulation was basically viable, even though the European Commission is only expressly allowed to end the fishing season once quotas have actually been reached.
The problem with the prohibition, the court said, was that it discriminated against non-Spanish fleets by making them to quit netting bluefin a week earlier.
Spanish operators are no different from purse seiners in other Mediterranean countries, the court said.
The ruling opens the floodgates for other affected purse seiners to sue for damages. Purse seine fishers catch about 70 percent of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean.
In 2010, the EU also closed the fishery prematurely after exhausting its yearly quota of 14,900 tons three weeks early. The EU's 2011 quota consists of just more than 14,200 tons, or about 5 percent less than last year.
Bluefin stocks in the region have declined by about 80 percent since the late 1950s. Last year, Japan scuttled a proposal for an international ban on fishing of the species. Bluefin is prized in Japan for its succulent ruby flesh, used in sushi and sashimi.
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