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North-South rift stalls EU quest to protect tuna
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe's fisheries chief has been stalled in her efforts to protect the Atlantic blue fin tuna, a giant fish prized by sushi lovers, with Mediterranean fishing nations opposing her plan.
European Union fisheries ministers were meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday to discuss a joint EU stance on how many of the endangered fish should be targeted in next year's summer fishing season.
"I'm fully aware of the effect quota reductions will have on our fishermen, but solid decisions are needed today if we want to achieve long-term sustainability of our stocks and profitability for the sector," EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki told ministers.
Atlantic nations will set catch limits at talks in Paris starting on Nov. 17, and the EU hopes to go there with a united negotiating position.
Western scientists say stocks of the Atlantic blue fin -- which can fetch $100,000 each at market -- have fallen by around 80 percent over the last 40 years and overfishing threatens their survival.
High-tech fishing vessels using echo-sounders have become so efficient at locating and netting the giant creatures when they congregate for their annual breeding time in June that a season's quota can be met in just 10 days.
TUNA FOR SUSHI
Most of the tuna are sent to Japan, where they are prized by sushi lovers.
Damanaki advised ministers on Tuesday that catch limits should be set at around 6,000 tonnes during the November meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), sources in the meeting said.
The informal advice, was a sharp cut compared to this summer's limit of 13,500 tonnes, and the 2009 quota of 19,950 tonnes.
Britain and Sweden backed Damanaki's call for tough conservation measures, sources said. But France, Italy, Spain and Malta were among a group of nations, dubbed "Club Med", that wanted to catch more.
"Safeguarding blue fin tuna is a top priority and the UK will work with the Commission and member states to secure measures that will ensure its future sustainability," said UK Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon.
The EU is legally obliged to push for the total closure of the Mediterranean blue fin fishery for at least 3 years, said activist lawyers group ClientEarth, citing EU and international laws. France should also be penalised for overfishing in the past, it added.
Conservationists see ICCAT as one of the last hopes for blue fin, after the EU failed in its bid to have the species listed as endangered at a March meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
While Japan was effective in building a coalition to oppose a CITES ban on trading blue fin, the EU's common position fell into disarray during negotiations.
The warm-blooded blue fin is known for its size and speed, reaching weights of over 600 kg (1,320 lb) -- heavier than an average horse -- and accelerating faster than a sports car to reach top speeds of around 70 km/h (44 mph).
(Reporting by Pete Harrison)
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