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It's open season for bluefin tuna

How the world's appetite for sushi could outweigh concerns about overfishing.

MADRID — Bluefin tuna, a favorite of sushi lovers, graces dinner tables from Japan to the United States. But because the waters off these countries hold an insufficient bounty of the delicacy, fishermen use the overfished and under-regulated Mediterranean to satisfy demand.

With the season opening April 15, south European and North African fisheries are gearing up for another year in hot pursuit of one of the world’s prize catches.

Yet the traditional disregard for quotas leaves fishermen and consumers alike wondering how devastating the damage from overfishing will be this year.

“The industry has to show it can control itself," said Maria Jose Cornax, a marine biologist at the conservation group Oceana. "It is overexploiting a species in a delicate equilibrium and in danger of commercial collapse."

And the zeal looks to threaten more than just the Mediterranean tuna population.

The bluefin stock on the Eastern seaboard and in the Gulf of Mexico has been unable to recover from overfishing despite more than a decade of strict regulations. Studies on migration patterns suggest that the failure to replenish that stock derives at least in part from depletion in the Mediterranean.

That connection has led many to push for a truly Atlantic solution to save the fishery. But scientists are still unsure how much mixing occurs between the different populations and the hunting frenzy seems unlikely to recede in the absence of more conclusive research.

Scientists do not think the Atlantic and Mediterranean populations interbreed, but they do share common feeding ground in the north Atlantic.

Lobbying by U.S. fisheries for increased restrictions in the Mediterranean and east Atlantic waters has been met with firm resistance in the coastal countries that profit most from selling their catch to the highly developed sushi-sashimi market of Japan.