Europe's Mediterranean fishing nations have rejected measures to protect the endangered bluefin tuna proposed last month by the European Union fishing chief Maria Damanaki, EU officials said on Thursday.
The decision late on Wednesday means the 27-nation EU joins international quota talks in Paris this week without a mandate for negotiating tough measures to conserve the fish, whose numbers have declined by more than half over the last 40 years.
The EU was seen as a key champion of Atlantic bluefin, which can grow to the size of an average horse, accelerate faster than a sports car and can fetch $100,000 each at market in Japan, where they are prized by sushi lovers.
The total bluefin quota for 2010 was set at 13,500 tonnes and Damanaki said last month that to give the giant fish a real chance of recovery, the 2011 quota should be set at around 6,000 tonnes at the Paris meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).
The 10-day ICCAT talks started on Wednesday.
Ms. Damanaki accepted that the need to protect the livelihoods of fishermen would probably dictate a higher quota than 6,000 tonnes. But in a meeting late on Wednesday, EU ambassadors in Brussels, led by France, rebuffed Ms. Damanaki's proposal and wrote their own, which barely mentions quota reductions.
"Nevertheless, the Commission will respect its obligations as the negotiator on behalf of the European Union," Ms. Damanaki responded in a tersely worded statement.
Conservationists accused France of failing to live up to its own green rhetoric.
"It's a bad start," said Remi Parmentier, an adviser to the U.S.-based Pew Environment Group. "Here we have a real test-case of the EU putting words into action for reforming fisheries."
An EU official said on Thursday that the agreed EU position asks for ICCAT scientific opinion to be rigorously followed with the aim of achieving a 60 per cent or higher chance of helping the bluefin population regain sustainable levels by 2022.
But like all knowledge of what happens in the ocean's depths, ICCAT's scientific opinion is unclear.
It has come under attack this year, with conservation-minded scientists on ICCAT's panel accusing fishing nations of deliberately clouding the issue by submitting unreliable data.
"Even their most optimistic scientific scenario acknowledges there's a margin of error of 40 per cent," said Mr. Parmentier. "The benefit of the doubt should not go to the industry that is responsible for this crisis."
Ms. Damanaki, who started her political career as a leader in the 1973 student uprising against Greece's then-military dictatorship, has staked her reputation on reviving Europe's sickly fisheries after decades of over-exploitation.