MADRID (Reuters) - Overfishing will wipe out the breeding population of Atlantic bluefin tuna, one of the ocean's largest and fastest predators, in three years unless catches are dramatically reduced, conservation group WWF said on Tuesday.
As European fishing fleets prepare to begin the two-month Mediterranean fishing season on Wednesday, WWF said its analysis showed the bluefin tuna that spawn -- those aged four years and older -- will have disappeared by 2012 at current rates.
"For years people have been asking when the collapse of this fishery will happen, and now we have the answer," said Sergi Tudela, Head of Fisheries at WWF Mediterranean.
The fish, which can weigh over half a ton and accelerate faster than a sports car, are a favorite of sushi lovers. Demand from Japan has triggered an explosion in the size of the Mediterranean fleet over the past decade and many of those boats use illegal spotter planes to track the warm-blooded tuna.
"Mediterranean (Atlantic) bluefin tuna is collapsing as we speak and yet the fishery will kick off again tomorrow for business as usual. It is absurd and inexcusable to open a fishing season when stocks of the target species are collapsing," added Tudela.
Environmental groups condemned an agreement signed in November by states setting bluefin quotas -- a body dominated by EU members. The groups called it "a disaster" and "a disgrace," saying the states again chose to ignore their own scientists and set quotas 47 percent higher than recommended.
Illegal fishing is also rife for the bluefin, the dried, dark red meat of which once fed Roman armies on the march.
Growing numbers of restaurants and retailers including Carrefour's Italian supermarkets are boycotting it.
WWF said that analysis of official data showed the average size of mature tunas had more than halved since the 1990s and that this has had a disproportionately high impact since bigger fish produced many more offspring.
The bluefin can only be saved by a complete halt to fishing in May and June as the fish rush through the Straits of Gibraltar to spawn in the Mediterranean, WWF and other campaign groups say.
(Reporting by Ben Harding)