Attempts to save the bluefin tuna from extinction suffered a serious setback yesterday when the European Union dropped its demand for commercial fishing of the species to be banned.
A rearguard action by Mediterranean fishing nations, including Spain, Italy and France, blocked moves to get the European Union to support a worldwide ban.
Conservationists backed by celebrities including Stephen Fry have called for a trading ban to give the species a chance to recover. Yesterday's setback was met with dismay.
Lobbying by Japan, whose sushi trade is heavily dependent on Europe's bluefin exports, is thought to have played a vital role in the conservationists' defeat.
Stavros Dimas, the European Commissioner for the environment, was among those dismayed by the failure to conserve bluefin tuna. He is now pinning his hopes on a meeting in November of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas to introduce tough measures to protect the fish.
One of Mr Dimas's officials said: "They need to come up with conservation protection measures that live up to the scientific evidence – which so far they have failed to do."
Bluefin tuna numbers have slumped to 18 per cent of what they were less than 40 years ago, and individual fish are smaller than they once were.
Officials from EU member states met yesterday to consider a recommendation by the European Commission to support a ban on trade in the species. Britain had backed an official proposal by Monaco to champion efforts to place bluefin tuna on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
The proposal had been expected to be adopted until Mediterranean members – notably France, Spain, Italy, Malta, Greece, and Cyprus – joined forces to block it despite both France and Malta having earlier pledged to support it.
The Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, said: "I'm very disappointed the European Union has not agreed at this stage to support the proposal. We believe that full protection for bluefin tuna is urgent and necessary."
Greenpeace was particularly angered by France's decision to block the ban despite President Nicolas Sarkozy's promise two months ago to support a trading ban.