your connection to The Boston Globe

EU: Speed up protection of bluefin tuna

BRUSSELS, Belgium --European Union nations are poised to greatly increase protection for the overfished bluefin tuna, an increasingly rare delicacy in sushi shops around the world, officials said Tuesday.

EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg said he wants new worldwide cuts in catches to apply as quickly as possible.

Officials said the EU's 27 member states were expected to approve the cuts within weeks.

The bluefin has been part of the Mediterranean diet for centuries and the dark red meat is now craved for the finest and costliest sushi and sashimi from markets in Tokyo to restaurants in London and Los Angeles.

In Japan last month, worldwide regulators adopted a plan aimed at slowing the decline in global tuna stocks by reining in illegal fishing, controlling the growth of fleets and sharing data on stock assessments.

As part of the measures, controllers from one nation will be able to check vessels from another, the closed season will be extended and better tracking of the product.

"The measures introduced, which are draconian," will also limit recreational fishers to one bluefin tuna per trip at sea, said EU expert John Spencer. At an industrial level, major companies will no longer be allowed to send helicopters out to spot large groups of bluefin at sea.

Illegal fishing has been a blow to the species. In EU waters, it is estimated that one in three catches goes undeclared onto the black market. On the EU's 2006 allowable catch of 32,000 tons, officials estimate an additional 18,000 tons were caught illegally.

Under the cuts, the EU wants to have strict surveillance from the catch until it ends on someone's dinner plate. "Japan will have to be very vigilant," said Spencer, considering it is such a huge export market.

European catch quotas for this year will also drop to 29,500 tons, but the more stringent controls should make a bigger contribution, officials said.

Huge stocks of tuna traditionally spawn in the Mediterranean and they have sustained generations of fishermen. Even though the stocks have declined, fishermen have said the restrictions were excessive.

"The basic problem is that there are too many vessels chasing too few fish," said Spencer.

Globally, Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks have dropped by some 80 percent over the past 30 years.