bluefin tunaBluefin tuna fishing in the Atlantic will be reduced nearly 40 percent in 2010, but will that be enough to save this threatened species from extinction?

Populations of one of the world's most highly desired and valuable fish, Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), have dropped 97 percent since 1960. As the numbers have crashed, market prices have soared. Earlier this year, two Japanese sushi bars paid a record $104,000 for a single, 128-kilogram tuna.

For several years now scientists and conservation groups have called on the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) to reduce the amount of catch it allows its 48 member nations to net each year and thereby allow bluefin populations to recover. At a meeting Sunday in Brazil the ICCAT did just that, deciding to lower the annual quotas for Atlantic bluefin tuna to 13,500 metric tons. This continues a downward trend for ICCAT's quotas: the 2009 quota was 22,000 tonnes, and the previous year's came in at 28,000 tonnes.

But do these quota reductions go far enough? Several studies presented to ICCAT during its 10-day meeting called for even lower limits. One study said that even a "strictly enforced 8,000-tonne quota" would have only a 50 percent chance of allowing the species to recover—by 2023.

Quota enforcement is just as important as the quotas themselves, as high prices for bluefin have given rise to extensive illegal fishing activity. ICCAT itself estimated that in 2007, illegal fishing brought the total catch of bluefin to 60,000 metric tons, nearly twice the legal annual allowance.

Conservation groups aren't happy with the ICCAT decision, saying it does not go nearly far enough, and that it ignores the long-term health of the species. "This reduction of allowable catch is not based on any particular scientific advice to recover the stock with high probability—it is just an arbitrary political measure and only for one year," Sergi Tudela, head of fisheries at the WWF Mediterranean Programme Office, said in a prepared statement. "Now more than ever, WWF sees a global trade ban as the only hope for Atlantic bluefin."

The possibility of a global ban is on the agenda for a March 2010 meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). If approved, the 175 nations which participate in the CITES treaty, including the U.S., Spain and Japan, would no longer be allowed to sell bluefin tuna, which are not currently protected under any CITES regulations.

Image: Bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), via Wikipedia