Tuna fishermen gathered in Charlottetown Thursday to plan for the season ahead, but talk around the table focused on a possible worldwide ban on the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna, slated to be discussed at a UN meeting next month.
Canada and 174 other countries will be asked to support the ban at the world conference of the Convention of the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Qatar's capital of Doha from March 13-15.
Monaco proposed the ban because scientists believe the fish could be facing extinction. Populations have declined more than 80 per cent since the 19th century.
'The commercial fishery as we know it would be done.' —Walter Bruce, P.E.I. Fishermen's Association
The proposal has garnered support from several other European countries, including most recently France.
But bluefin tuna, which can reach three metres long and weigh more than 650 kilograms, are a prized catch on P.E.I., said Walter Bruce, chair of the P.E.I. Fishermen's Association Tuna Advisory Committee.
Buyers from Japan and the U.S. pay thousands of dollars per fish — a key ingredient in sushi.
A worldwide ban could mean the end of the island fishery, Bruce said.
"We export over 95 per cent of ours and I believe the Canadian consumption is probably only five or six ton a tuna a year, so, as I said, the commercial fishery as we know it would be done."
Canada to vote 'no'
Canada will be voting against the ban, said federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea.
"We feel that we do an excellent job of managing this [fishery]. It's a very important fishery to Atlantic Canada, so we'll be encouraging other countries to not support this ban as well," she said.
Conservation groups contend overfishing in European waters is to blame for the declining populations.
Canadians catch tuna one by one, using rod and reel, while Europeans use nets to round up hundreds at a time, said Gretchen Fitzgerald of the Sierra Club.
"I think in the case of a Canadian fishery with low bicatch, that isn't having the severe declines that they've seen in the eastern side. I think that type of fishery actually should be promoted," she said.
P.E.I.'s commercial tuna quota is the largest in the Maritimes, with 286 licensed fishermen taking 138 metric tonnes each year.
The International Commission on the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, which sets quotas on the annual bluefin catch, has reduced this year's limit to 13,500 tonnes, down nearly 40 per cent from 2009.
The island association hopes the steps that Canada and other countries have already taken on their own, will convince the other countries voting next month that a complete ban is not necessary.
On Wednesday Jean-Louis Borloo, France's ecology minister, told a news conference in Paris that his country will support the proposed ban.