Bluefin tuna showdown pits economy vs. ecology

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Dozens of nations gathered in Paris Wednesday to decide catch quotas for Atlantic bluefin tuna, a highly-prized luxury food consumed raw in Japan as sashimi or sushi.

The 10-day meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) will seek an elusive compromise between boosting stocks of the dwindling species and salvaging a multi-billion dollar industry spread around the Mediterranean rim.

Conservationists argue that no real compromise is possible.

"Bluefin tuna fishing does not have a future unless ICCAT shuts down purse-seine fishing and farming," said Maria-Jose Cornax, an expert with advocacy group Oceana.

Purse-seine fishing in the Mediterranean, is when bluefin are trapped during spawning season in floating drawstring nets that can capture thousands of fish at once, and then hauled to coastal "farms" where they are fattened for market.

Oceana, along with NGOs Greenpeace, WWF and Pew Environment Group, called on Tuesday for a ban on this kind of fishing.

They also want a reduction in 2011 of the allowable annual catch from 13,500 tonnes - the 2010 limit - to a maximum of 6,000 tonnes.

"That is a realistic scenario," ICCAT Chairman Fabio Hazin of Brazil said when asked to comment.

"One of the things that is being discussed [within ICCAT] is the possible suspension of purse-seine fishing and the caging activities," he said at a roundtable discussion.

Driven by wholesale prices in Japan that can top 100,000 dollars per specimen, industrial-scale fishing in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic has depleted stocks by 85 percent in recent decades, scientists say.

The Japanese consume 80 percent of the Atlantic bluefin catch, with Americans appetites accounting for nine percent.

ICCAT member states have disagreed sharply going into the meeting whether next year's quotas should remain at 13,500, as in 2010, or be cut in half or even suspended.

France's fisheries minister, Bruno Le Maire, said his country favoured maintaining the 13,500 level, a position backed by Spain and Italy.

Britain and Germany, along with EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki, have come out in favour of a sharp reduction.

The European Union was supposed to forge a common position going into the meeting, but has so far failed to do so.

Some conservation groups argue that only a complete suspension will allow the species to recover.

ICCAT's scientific committee said last month that extending the 2010 catch limit for each of the next three years would give bluefin in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean a 63-percent chance of attaining so-called "maximum sustainable yield" by 2022.

"The commissioners should be precautionary and not go for the higher range of possibility," Hazin said, adding this was "only my personal view."

Before the introduction of purse-seine fishing and tuna ranching in the 1990s, bluefin were caught using more traditional methods.

Critics also say ICCAT is riddled with fraud, a claim bolstered by recent investigative reports and France's admission in 2007 that its catch for that year was more than double the authorized limit.

"There is so much illegal fishing going on that the only responsible thing to do is to suspend the fishery, get it sorted out, and then open it slowly so the species can recover," said Sue Lieberman, policy director for the US-based Pew Environment Group.

Industry representatives, backed by their governments, say the organisation has cracked down on renegade fishing in the last three years by adding independent on-board inspectors and an improved ship-to-market tracking system.

"I hope, I believe, that the dark ages of ICCAT are in the past. The time of not respecting science in ICCAT is over," Hazin said.

At the same time, the chairman acknowledged that the system was still far from perfect.

The so-called Bluefin tuna Catch Document Scheme "is not working the way it should," he said.

Half of the entries in the database were missing crucial data such as vessel or species names and tonnage, according to an recent investigative report.

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