Fishing nations force EU retreat on bluefin tuna

France, Spain and other Mediterranean nations forced the European Union to retreat Thursday from an ambitious plan to save the threatened and prized bluefin tuna.

After drawn-out negotiations, the 27-nation EU abandoned a plan to seek cutbacks in fishing quotas based only on scientific advice and said Thursday it will now also take the interests of tuna fishermen into account.

Representatives from 48 countries around the world are preparing to set fishing quotas for the Atlantic bluefin, whose tender red meat is popular in sushi in Japan. That meeting in Paris started Wednesday and continues through Nov. 27.

Some conservationists want quotas slashed at the meeting, while others want fishing suspended entirely, saying that fraud and illegal fishing tactics are rampant in the Mediterranean. The conservation group WWF says the species is "on the brink of extinction."

Bluefin tuna stocks in the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean have dropped 60 percent from 1997 to 2007. This year, large European fishing boats had to stop fishing for bluefin in June because they had already used up their entire yearly quota.

EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki said her latest negotiating mandate "is not based on the Commission's proposal," which had centered on cutting catches as marine scientists recommended.

Damanaki, who had called her own proposal "a major step forward" but never issued details on it, is now faced with defending a position at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or ICCAT, that she does not agree with.

"Nevertheless, the Commission will respect its obligations as the negotiator on behalf of the European Union," she said in a statement.

An EU official said a meeting of EU ambassadors late Wednesday turned into a power fight, with Mediterranean nations holding out for a softer stance with fewer consequences for the fishing industry, which is already hit hard by declining numbers of fish. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks.

The EU statement Thursday was vague and did not mention the exact quota it would press for at the international meeting. The EU official said it would be a small reduction from the current Mediterranean quota of 13,500 metric tons.

In March, Japan and other Asian nations blocked efforts at the United Nations to declare the fish an endangered species, which would effectively have banned any international trade in it.

Japan consumes about 80 percent of the world's Atlantic bluefin tuna.