BRUSSELS EU fisheries regulators have banned trawling for bluefin tuna from next week in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean to stop overfishing of a species that is approaching stock collapse, the EU executive said on Friday.
Bluefin tuna is prized by sushi lovers and its numbers have fallen due to overfishing by countries hunting it in those waters -- Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain.
Last year, their combined national fleets caused the EU to exceed its international catch quota by 25 percent. Scientists say bluefin tuna may die out if fishing is not restricted.
But the incentive to catch bluefin tuna remains strong, particularly in June, when around 85 percent of the fish are caught. Since last year, market prices for the delicacy have roughly tripled: in Japan a single fish can cost up to $100,000.
Bluefin tuna are known for their huge size, power and speed. Maximum weights recorded are in excess of 600 kg.
As of June 16, vessels flying the flags of Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy and Malta will be prohibited from fishing for bluefin tuna in either Mediterranean or eastern Atlantic waters. A similar ban goes into force for Spain on June 23. It was not immediately clear if or when Portugal would be subject to a ban.
The bans apply to vessels that use a "purse seine", a type of net that floats the top of a long wall of netting on the surface while its bottom is held weighted under the water.
The European Commission, the EU executive, regulates fishing quotas for member states and also negotiates international fisheries agreements on their behalf.
"The Commission is determined to use all necessary means to prevent a recurrence of the substantial overfishing seen in 2007," it said in a statement.
"Last year, overfishing was largely driven by the industrial purse seine sector of the fleet, which takes more than 70 percent of the total catch."
France's Agriculture Ministry said minister Michel Barnier had expressed his objection to the decision to the EU and called for a meeting of an expert committee to help clarify the use of quotas in the countries concerned.
Environment group WWF was unimpressed with the later date for Spain's ban and said the poor state of stocks should have prevented trawling this year altogether.
"Overfishing and massive illegal catches threaten the survival of bluefin tuna. Fishing should be banned indefinitely at least during June, the key spawning month for Mediterranean bluefin tuna," Aaron McLoughlin, head of WWF's European Marine Program, said in a statement.
Commission experts say the EU's fishing capacity is so large and bluefin tuna trawling activity so concentrated in June that the EU quota can be exhausted in just two days of fishing.
(Additional reporting by Tamora Vidaillet in Paris; Editing by Alison Williams)