Bluefin tuna gets scant relief at fisheries meet

Fishing nations opted Saturday to leave catch limits for eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna virtually unchanged despite concerns that the species is perilously close to collapse.

Annual quotas for the sushi mainstay will be trimmed from 13,500 tonnes this year to 12,900 tonnes in 2011, the 48-member International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) decided at the close of a 10-day meeting in Paris.

Some nations here favoured a much lower cap, or even a suspension of fishing, to ensure bluefin's long-term viability.

But industry representatives and the governments that back them insisted the new catch limits were sufficient.

"They will make it possible to reach maximum sustainable yield by 2022, which represents a balance between respecting natural resources and preserving the social-economic fabric," said Bruno Le Maire, France's agriculture and fisheries minister in a statement.

ICCAT scientists calculate that the new catch levels will put eastern Atlantic bluefin on track for a 70 percent chance of reaching sustainability by that date.

The same scientists, however, caution that the data upon which these estimates are based is spotty at best, while conservationists counter that a 30 percent risk of failure is too high.

The head of the Japanese delegation, Masanori Miyahara, told AFP he was satisfied with the outcome, but said stronger compliance measures were needed.

"The actual catch level will be around 11,000, which is a large reduction off current levels," he added, noting that some members had pledged not to use up their quotas.

Japan is the world's top consumer of bluefin buying up more than 80 percent of all the fish taken from the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic.

The United States, which had pushed for a sharper reduction, expressed disappointment.

"I can't say that we acted in as precautionary a manner as I would have liked," said Russell Smith, a Department of Commerce official and head of the US delegation.

Currently, eastern Atlantic bluefin are at 85 percent of historical levels and 30 percent of "maximum sustainable yield", the target for recovery.

Green groups reacted angrily.

"This outcome confirms that the bluefin's days are numbered and has demonstrated ICCAT's inability to act on its own mandate," said Greenpeace International oceans campaigner Oliver Knowles.

"The word 'conservation' should be removed from ICCAT's name."

Going into the meeting, the European Union - allocated more than half the annual catch - was sharply divided.

Fishing nations led by France pushed to maintain the status quo, even as the EU fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki said they should be slashed to 6,000 tonnes.

A backdoor attempt by France, meanwhile, to stretch out payments of its "tuna debt"- incurred in 2007 when it surpassed a national quota of 5,000 tonnes by more than 100 percent - failed.

A proposal submitted on its behalf by Morocco was shot down in the final plenary.

As things stand, France's bluefin haul for 2011 could drop from about 2,000 to 500 tonnes, barely enough to keep a handful of commercial vessels busy during the one- or two-month long fishing season.

Sue Lieberman of the Pew Environment Group said current quotas did not take into account ICCAT's history of mismanagement.

"It ignores all the evidence of fraud, illegal fishing and laundering," she said.

The 30-page "recovery plan" adopted by ICCAT includes several new measures to combat these problems, including a Japanese proposal whereby each country's ability to monitor and police its catches would be first submitted to ICCAT's compliance committee for approval.

"We have to do many things to ensure compliance before the fishing season starts," Miyahara said.

The plan also bans for the first time multi-nation fishing operations by countries with sizable tuna fleets, a technique that has been used to disguise excess catches.

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