Conservationists are warning against an “irresponsible” increase in bluefin tuna quotas, as members of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas meet for talks in South Africa this week.

After decades of overfishing almost led to the collapse of bluefin stocks in the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean, their numbers have reportedly grown in recent years, largely due to the fishing quota system.

ICCAT’s scientific committee, meeting in Rome in October, recommended keeping the bluefin quota at its current level of some 13,400 tonnes for the year, to allow the stocks to fully recover by 2022.

Citing the ICCAT science, the WWF sent a letter to European Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki on 8 November asking her to resist an increase in the bluefin quotas.

“Some are asking for an important increase just this year, against the recommendation, and for us that would be catastrophic,” said Sergi Tudela, head of the Mediterranean fisheries programme at conservation group the WWF.

“Spain is the most vocal in EU for raising quota. Japan is also supporting a raise,” Tudela told EurActiv.

Before travelling to South Africa for the talks, Damanaki expressed support for the scientific committee's call for the sustainable management of stocks but said the fishing sector had "made significant and painful sacrifices over the past years to allow bluefin tuna to recover".

International pressure has focused on raising the quota allocated to European Union waters, which represent 56% of the global share. Spain, France and Italy have the largest share, followed by Croatia, Greece and Malta.

“We are calling on responsibility from Europe, which represents half the bluefin stock quotas,” Tudela said.

Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, China and Korea also have small quotas. Japan has quotas for vessels operating south of Iceland.

Poor data

After they are caught, bluefin tuna are kept alive and moved to ‘fattening farms’ in the Mediterranean, where they are fed until they are ready for the market. The necessity to keep the fish alive means they are kept under water, where only unreliable video footage keeps a track of their numbers.

This means that bluefin fishing is susceptible to fraud, Tudela says.

“They [fishermen] are underreporting, saying that their fish has more than doubled in weight [at the fattening farms]. They are reporting unbelievable or unreliable growth rates that are physically impossible for the fish.”

It is also impossible to track where each individual fish came from, as the different hauls are all mixed together in the fattening farms, Tudela says.

The ICCAT scientific committee is cautious about allowing allow increased fishing of bluefin as it deems fish stock data incomplete and unreliable.

ICCAT’s current scientific advice is based on data from 2012 so the fisheries body recommends maintaining the quotas until it produces a more detailed report for 2015.

Countries can incur penalties for not reporting catches or fishing illegally, including fines or the removal of quotas.

ICCAT members will also discuss a proposal ban on shark finning during the meeting in South Africa.

A report released yesterday (19 November) by maritime conservation group Oceana revealed that up to 24 countries were were failing to report shark catches in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, a breach of ICCAT rules.

A comparison of data on reported shark catches in 2012 revealed that many countries had not reported shark catches but still exported shark fins to Hong Kong.

The EU recently announced a full ban on the practice, in which fishermen sever the fins of the shark on board the vessels for later use in shark fin soup, considered a delicacy in China.

Shark finning had led to the depletion of up to 99% of some stocks of shark species.