PARIS (Reuters) - Fishing nations agreed on Saturday to a slim reduction in quotas for catching giant Atlantic bluefin tuna, whose stocks have plunged as fishermen strive to meet demand from sushi lovers.
Ignoring calls from conservation groups for deep cuts, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) said its 48 member states, meeting in Paris, had set a 2011 quota of 12,900 tones, down 600 from this year.
An Atlantic bluefin can grow to the size of a horse and fetch as much as $100,000 in markets such as Japan, but stocks have plunged by more than 80 percent since 1970s, according to western scientists.
Environmental groups said the quota fell short of what was needed to sustain healthy stock levels, noting that illegal fishing and under-reporting of catches might mean stock estimates were over-optimistic.
"Greed and mismanagement have taken priority over sustainability and common sense," WWF Mediterranean fisheries head Sergi Tudela said.
"This measly quota reduction is insufficient to ensure the recovery of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea."
The warm-blooded bluefin tuna can weigh up to 650 kg (1,433 lb) and is found in the North Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean, where big commercial fishing operations fatten captured fish in enclosures.
France, Italy and Spain catch most of the Atlantic bluefin consumed in the world and 80 percent of the haul goes to Japan.
While environmental groups lamented the cut as too little, the fishing industry said it was too much.
Serge Lazarbal, head of the bluefin tuna commission at the French Fishing Committee, said his industry would have preferred the existing quota to be retained.
The European Commission had said the catch should be cut to 6,000 tones to give the fish a real chance of recovery, but the European Union's Mediterranean members shot down that proposal even before the 10-day ICCAT meeting started on November 17.
Despite the rejection of her proposal, EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki said in a statement that the meeting had made "a step in the right direction for sustainable management" of bluefin tuna.
Japan championed a crackdown on illegal fishing and under-reporting, but was cautious about whether members would follow through on tougher measures to ensure quotas are respected.
"We have to do many things (on) compliance before the fishing season starts," said Masanori Miyahara, head of the Japanese delegation.
In a move welcomed by conservation groups, ICCAT members also agreed to step up protection in the Atlantic Ocean of whitetip oceanic sharks and several species of hammerhead sharks by banning their retention when they are netted with other fish.
Reporting by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Kevin Liffey