Canada has successfully persuaded the international community to increase the number of bluefin tuna that may be caught in the western Atlantic even as Ottawa sits on a recommendation to have the giant fish declared an endangered species.
The decision has confounded conservationists who accuse the federal Conservative government of ignoring science in its desire to appease fishermen who enjoy the bluefin's lucrative returns.
"The government should be going through the Species at Risk Act process so we are certain" that the bluefin catch can be sustainably increased, David Miller, the president of World Wildlife Fund Canada, said Monday.
"We have seen a number of times with this government, very, very slow work through that process when there is a species at risk that's going to need protection, but then either quick work or avoidance of the process when they want to increase the exploitation."
The International Commission on the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) agreed Monday that the western Atlantic bluefin quota could be raised for the first time in more than a decade – from 1750 to 2000 tonnes in each of the next two years. The fish are coveted by Japanese sushi lovers and a single specimen can fetch tens of thousands of dollars.
But their numbers have also been severely depleted by overharvesting and a little more than half as many bluefin are estimated to be swimming in the waters of Atlantic Canada today as there were four decades ago.
The decline prompted the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada to recommend in 2011 that the fish be declared endangered under the Species At Risk Act. No designation was ever made, and Canada has instead lobbied for an increase in the fishing quotas.
ICCAT previously resisted those pressures but, with the bluefin population rebounding somewhat since strict preservation measures were imposed in the 1990s, the international body agreed this year that the numbers should be raised.
"Canada advocated for sustainable, science-based fisheries management decisions while ensuring our economic interests are protected," Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said Monday on Twitter.
"The modest increase of the bluefin tuna TAC [total allowable catch] is based on the most recent advice and allows the stock to continue to grow."
Some environmentalists, on the other hand, say it is far too soon to raise the quotas on a fish that is still under threat.
"The scientific advice is saying that an increase really only has a 50-per-cent chance of keeping the population growing and it's just too big of a risk when we're finally showing that what we are doing is working," said Katie Schleit, the marine campaign co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.
There is much scientific uncertainty about how many bluefin actually live in the western Atlantic and to what degree their numbers have increased, said Ms. Schleit.
Even the long-term health of the fishing industry suggests that the quota should be kept where it is, she said.
Some in the industry disagree. Tony MacDonald of Tony's Tuna Fishing in Prince Edward Island said he is glad more bluefin can be caught next year.
"It gives us a little bit of supplemental income, which is important now with lobster prices sometimes at an all-time low," said Mr. MacDonald.
"The quota [of bluefin] is so small for the number of fishermen now, that any increase will help all fishermen, in the long run, to afford to stay in the water."