Fishing countries on Monday voted to keep up strict limits on catching Atlantic Bluefin tuna, overruling fierce opposition from critics who argue that the key sushi ingredient is on the rebound.
Observers at a week-long meeting in the Moroccan resort of Agadir said some countries pushed for removing tough quotas, but that the 48-member international organization of fishing nations decided the devastated population still needed time to rebuild.
Stocks of bluefin in the Atlantic Ocean fell catastrophically due to rampant, often illegal, overfishing and lax quotas — dropping by 60 percent between 1997 and 2007. Although there has been some improvement, experts say the outlook for the species is still fragile.
"It is always difficult for this commission to make decision. It has 48 members and the views are very varied," said Masanori Miyahara, the head of the Japanese delegation and chairman of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. "After a long wait, the bluefin tuna is showing signs of recovery — we have to move step by step and follow scientific advice."
The quota will be allowed to rise slightly from 12,900 metric tons a year to 13,500 — the upper limit recommended by scientists in 2006. Quotas were as high as 32,000 tons in 2006.
Environmentalists welcomed Monday's decision, saying it will maintain the recovery for at least the next year. The decision will be reviewed in 2014, though the original scientific recommendation called for maintaining the quotas through 2022.
"We are pleased because for us it is very important to respect the scientific advice and this is the first time we are tracking recovery," said Susana Sainz Trapaga, the fisheries advocacy officer of the World Wildlife Fund. "It's very important in this uncertain situation that we keep up efforts and stay with the recovery plan we have up to now."
Similar newly proposed protection measures for mako and porbeagle sharks, which also come under the commission's purview, were not adopted by the commission.
The Oceana conservation organization described the decision as "baffling."
"They are willing to be cautious and follow scientific advice on bluefin, but when it comes to sharks, they ignore recommendations," Oceana shark expert Allison Perry told The Associated Press.
Shark populations have become seriously depleted, especially by the practice of finning, in which the fin of the shark is removed and then the creature is tossed back in the water to die, she said. One of the proposals would have required all sharks landed to have attached fins.
The conference only adopted a proposal to report next year on member compliance with existing shark protection measures.
Miyahara said he was disappointed with the failure to agree on protections for the endangered porbeagle shark.
According to the Ecology Action Center, Canada has been the main opposition to extending protections to the porbeagle due to its commercial interests in the shark.