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Negotiators leave bluefin tuna doomed

Analysis: Reluctance to conserve tuna is symbolic of trend away from sustainability.

Atlantic bluefin tuna
Greenpeace's "tunamobile" is parked on Nov. 19, 2010, in front of the Palais des Congres in Paris, France, where the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas is holding a 10-day meeting. (Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images)

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PARIS, France — Negotiators from 48 nations have pushed the noble Atlantic bluefin closer to collapse as the world wolfs down tuna-belly sushi like there is no tomorrow.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) trimmed its 13,500-ton annual quota to 12,900 tons after meeting for 10 days here earlier this month.

Environmental groups fought hard for a 50 percent reduction, if not a total ban. Estimates say the Atlantic bluefin is already four-fifths gone in the Mediterranean, decimated by high-tech fishing and flagrant violations.

The decision to make a minor cut reflects a wider trend: As global resources grow scarce, complacent governments favor short-run commercial and political interests over sustainability.

According to ICCAT’s own scientists, Atlantic bluefin have only a 70 percent chance of returning to healthy levels provided no more are caught than the quota allows.

In practice, few patrol boats or inspectors police the seas. Cash-strapped governments focus instead on illegal immigration and potential terrorism.

A single full-grown bluefin, sleek as a Lamborghini and nearly as fast, can bring $100,000 in Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. But few of those prized fish are left.

See photos from a Greenpeace vessel policing the Mediterraneanto prevent illegal fishing.

“It is now clear the entire management system of high seas fisheries is flawed and inadequate,” a Pew Environment Group statement said. “The time for letting the fox guard the hen house is over.”

Oliver Knowles, a campaigner for Greenpeace, called the quota a distressing sign of the times. Increasingly, he said, environmental regulation is left to trade groups shielded from scrutiny.

“The press is allowed in for the opening ceremony and the final communique, and we have no access,” he said. “All the horse trading is done in private behind closed doors.”

Voting is secret, and delegates do not reveal their positions.

Governments must act together to protect species and habitats with rigorous enforcement, Knowles said. “Without this,” he concluded, “regulation is useless.”

Environmentalists are particularly critical of ICCAT, which some call International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.

Pressure comes from Japan, which imports 80 percent of Mediterranean tuna, as well as governments that are not eager to confront small but disruptive fishermen’s unions.

At times, the Paris meeting had the air of a three-ring circus.