It's succulent and sought-after, a prized fish with a steep price: A single bite of Atlantic bluefin tuna can sell for more than $20 in Tokyo sushi restaurants.
But that demand has led to overfishing, and environmentalists say the world needs to act now to save the species at a meeting that started Wednesday in Paris.Representatives from 48 countries are preparing to set fishing quotas for the Atlantic bluefin, which swims waters from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mediterranean and which conservation group WWF says is "on the brink of extinction."
Environmentalists are pressing for dramatic cuts to the current annual quota of 13,500 metric tons in the Mediterranean, where they say fraud and overfishing is rampant. Some are even demanding a suspension of bluefin fishing entirely at the meeting, which runs until Nov. 27.
Conservationists say the tracking system is full of holes and that scientists don't have decent enough data to make an informed recommendation about what the quota should be.
The bluefin is the "poster child for mismanagement," Susan Lieberman, director of international policy for the Pew Environment Group, told The Associated Press.
She said the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or ICCAT, the body that regulates bluefin fishing and is meeting in Paris, has been largely to blame, letting the situation get out of control.
"There's tremendous fraud and cheating going on, and it's time to really recognize it and do the right thing so the fish can recover," said Lieberman, who is sitting in on the Paris meetings and wants fishing of the species suspended entirely for now.
Sergi Tudela, who heads the fisheries program for WWF Mediterranean, called ICCAT the "laughing stock on the world stage of fisheries management."
ICCAT's chairman, Fabio Hazin, says the commission emerged several years ago from what he calls its "dark ages" — when it would ignore scientists' recommendations as it set fishing quotas. He said this time ICCAT will follow advice from its scientific committee, which suggested a quota of anywhere from 0 to 13,500 metric tons.
"The commission might prefer some more precautionary levels, let's say 10,000 tons for example, to allow for possible catches that might not be declared," he told The AP, adding that even a suspension of fishing was possible.
"What's going to be the prevailing position, it's impossible to say," Hazin said.
Most discussion has focused on the Mediterranean: Bluefin stocks on the U.S. side of the Atlantic crashed years ago and are already tightly controlled, with a quota of only 1,800 metric tons annually. However, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — a spawning ground for bluefin — has raised new concerns.
France, which is hosting the meeting and which has a large fishing industry, wants to see the status quo prevail. Amid disagreement among members, the European Union has not yet announced a common position for the meeting, where officials will also discuss other ways beyond quotas to manage and conserve the species.
Hazin said one possible scenario is suspending a technique in which fishing boats use nets to trap mass quantities of bluefin to supply to fattening farms.
Environmental groups want an end to that practice, known as purse seine fishing, and they also want sanctuaries declared in bluefin spawning grounds. Protection of sharks, often a by-catch in tuna fishing, is another worry.
ICCAT is under extra pressure following an international fight about whether to ban all trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna.
Member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, rejected a proposal to do so at a meeting in Qatar in March.
Opposition to the idea was spearheaded by Japan, which buys nearly 80 percent of the annual Atlantic bluefin catch. Top-grade sushi with fatty bluefin can go for as much as 2,000 yen ($24) a piece in high-end Tokyo restaurants.
"We're not saying it isn't tasty," Lieberman said. "But too many people are eating it into extinction."