BRUSSELS Mediterranean countries have rejected a call by the European Union's executive and northern EU states to ban fishing for Atlantic bluefin tuna until the over-exploited population has recovered.
Atlantic bluefin is prized by sushi lovers and commands huge prices in Asia, particularly in Japan where a single fish can fetch up to $100,000.
As a result, industrial fishing by southern European countries has drastically reduced numbers in the Mediterranean and east Atlantic, and scientists warn the population is nearing the point at which it might never fully recover.
"We believe that full protection for bluefin tuna is urgent and necessary," said British Environment Secretary Hilary Benn.
The warm-blooded species is known for its size and speed, reaching weights of over 600 kg -- heavier than an average horse -- and accelerating faster than a sports car to reach top speeds of around 70 km/h.
The EU's executive European Commission said two weeks ago it would support the EU co-sponsoring a proposal by Monaco to list the species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) next March.
But Spain, Italy, France, Cyprus, Greece and Malta rejected that proposal at a meeting late on Monday, an EU diplomat said. Portugal joined northern European nations by voting in favor of a ban, said another source close to negotiations.
"The blinkered attitude of Mediterranean governments would drive bluefin tuna to extinction and leave fishermen with nothing to fish in just a few years," said Greenpeace campaigner Saskia Richartz. "But countries like Malta and Spain are increasingly isolated," she added.
European Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg said the species' fate now rested with the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) -- a body maligned by environmentalists as failing to protect bluefin.
ICCAT estimates the current level of fishing is three times higher than it should be, threatening to cut the spawning population to a fifth of its size in 1970.
"I'm very disappointed that the European Union has not agreed at this stage to support Monaco's proposal," said Britain's Benn. "When the ICCAT meets in November, the UK will press for action to be taken there."
(Reporting by Pete Harrison)