TOKYO – Nothing highlights Japan's insatiable hunger for tuna like the fish aisle at a supermarket — brick-size chucks of savory red meat, trays of delicately sliced sashimi and shelf-loads of sushi rolls.
Prized bluefin specimens the size of grown men, hooked as far away as the Mediterranean, are packed in ice and flown for next-day delivery to Tokyo, where they can fetch hundreds of dollars per pound at auction.
With soaring demand and prices to match, it's a small wonder that global tuna stocks are on the verge of collapse. The new question is how long — or if — the binge can continue.
This week scientists, regulators and fishermen are trying to reverse the decline at an unprecedented global summit to save the silvery fish and one of the world's most valuable and endangered catches.
At stake is an annual global haul worth hundreds of millions of dollars and the preservation of a top-tier predator fish that helps hold the ocean ecosystem in balance.
The conference, which ends Friday in the western city of Kobe, is the first by the world's five regional tuna regulating bodies to form a global strategy.
"Sustainable management of the world's tuna fisheries should be possible, if the will can be found," Simon Cripps, director of World Wildlife Fund's marine program, said in a statement Monday. "But many governments are routinely ignoring scientific advice, failing to implement the available conservation and management measures."
Some scientists believe that by 2030 there may be no mature tuna left among species like the southern bluefin if overfishing and poaching aren't addressed.
Japan's role as host to the Kobe conference is highly symbolic of its role as a major tuna consumer. The country accounts for 12 percent of the global catch of 2.06 million tons.
Japan's fisheries agency says the country gobbles up a quarter of the world supply of the five big species: bluefin, southern bluefin, bigeye, yellowfin and albacore.
Representatives from the commercial fishing industry, environmental groups and government regulators are discussing ways to strengthen information sharing and cooperation among regional organizations to track and manage tuna stocks.
Participants are seeking to create a framework requiring fishermen — not just exporters — to produce certificates of origin for the tuna they catch.
The delegates also want to call for a monitoring system to track tuna from the open sea to the fish market.
That should help crack down on illegal fishing and countries that exceed quotas.
A global approach is seen as essential because tuna are highly migratory, journeying thousands of miles between feeding and spawning grounds. Overfishing on one side of an ocean can affect fisheries half a world away.
By 2004, the number of adult Atlantic bluefin tuna capable of spawning had plummeted to roughly 19 percent of the 1975 level in the western half of the ocean, according to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.
Some action has already been taken.
In October, the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna agreed at a meeting in Miyazaki, Japan, to reduce the global catch of the endangered southern bluefin tuna by more than 20 percent in 2007.
At that meeting, Japan also promised to halve its quota for the southern bluefin tuna as compensation for overfishing, but denied poaching allegations.
But activists say overall quotas are still too high, and other challenges persist.
Tuna farms, for instance, are seen as one way of feeding global demand without depleting natural populations. But conservationists warn that poaching has expanded to capture live tuna for delivery to such farms, where they are fattened for market.
At the Kobe meetings, Australia, Japan and the United States have also proposed a unified performance review of the five global tuna organizations to figure out which conservation techniques work. It would also assess efforts to combat illegal fishing and bycatch — the accidental catching of the fish.
"We hope to accelerate cooperation as a result of this study," said Takaaki Suzuki, an official at Japan's fisheries ministry. "Some stocks are not in danger, others are."
Delegates were expected to conclude the conference Friday by releasing an action plan outlining future steps to save the tuna.