* France hesitates to support bluefin tuna trade ban
* International decision expected in Doha in March
* Mediterranean fishermen's jobs depend on outcome
By Michel Rose
SETE, France, Jan 28 As the clock on Sete's city tower strikes 5 p.m., the clear blue sky of this Mediterranean seaport suddenly fills with seagulls, awaiting the return of fishing boats from their regulated time at sea.
"They will be disappointed today. Mackerel and sardines are just not there," says a fish trader at the Pecherie Cettoise, next to the Sete wholesale fish market. "It's the tuna, they eat the other fish and there are too many of them."
Environmentalists say the bluefin tuna -- much sought after in Japan -- must be saved from extinction, and want to ban international trade in it, but the local fishing industry wants France to stay out of any international agreement.
French cabinet ministers are divided and a government decision, delayed earlier this month, is expected shortly.
The giant, warm-blooded fish is now found mainly in the Mediterranean after stocks off the coasts of North America plummeted in recent years.
In November ICCAT, the intergovernmental body in charge of managing tuna, lowered the total allowable catch to 13,500 tonnes for 2010. France, Italy and Spain together account for about half of this and 80 percent is exported to Japan.
Monaco has proposed protecting bluefin tuna by listing the species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but the EU did not support this as fishing nations worry about the social impact on coastal towns.
French Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo backs a strict CITES listing which means an outright ban on international trade. Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire said he favoured a milder approach, increasing monitoring of the species.
For Sete the difference is crucial, as the town's fishing fleet has enjoyed a 15-year boom in tuna exports, fuelled by Japanese demand for the fish whose red flesh is prized by sushi lovers and commands high prices in Asia.
Sete, whose name comes from the Latin word 'cetus' for whale, was once home to a mainly poor community of fishermen, often of Italian descent, who settled in the early 20th century.
As business with Japan boomed in the mid-1980s, a few of them, helped by EU subsidies, invested in expensive vessels and hi-tech gear and saw their catches and profits soar.
"We are talking about a very small number of individuals who became extremely rich, who are now euro millionaires," says Francois Catzeflis, a biologist at Montpellier-II University and a member of Greenpeace. "As soon as military sonar equipment was available for civil use, they would buy it," he adds.
Among the success stories is Jean-Marie Avallone, who founded the fishing company Medi Peche in 1987. He has the largest tuna fleet in France with five 40-metre long boats worth some 4 million euros ($5.60 million) each.
He holds prominent positions in city institutions and objects to claims that the tuna population is near extinction.
"They are fanatics who want to stop any fishing! At first I could understand that they wanted to fight abuses, but CITES is for Tanzania's elephants!" Avallone told Reuters.
Like others, Avallone has avoided the cuts in European fishing quotas by setting up joint ventures with Libya and putting some boats under the Libyan flag, enabling them to tap into the more generous Libyan quota.
"The day they ban wild tuna fishing, we will be left with industrial tuna farming. And that's eating crap," he added.
The World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) said recently that tuna could become extinct as soon as 2012 because of the size of the Mediterranean fleet and estimates of undeclared fishing. Scientists struggle to work out how big bluefin stocks are.
Italy said this week it would back a ban on bluefin fishing and the French decision could be decisive at the next CITES meeting in Qatar in March. The French government is wary of port blockades by angry fishermen as in Marseille last April.
About 1,500 jobs are at stake in Sete and the golden age of the "sushi boom" is already coming to an end.
"Before, we would work between three and six months a year and make about 30,000 euros," said Akabbar Im'hand, a fisherman in Sete for 32 years. "Now, with a 50-tone quota (per boat) you earn up to 5,000 euros. You can't live a whole year on that." (Reporting by Michel Rose, editing by Tim Pearce)