International delegates have adopted new protections for seven species of shark but rejected ones for bluefin tuna, signaling that fisheries managers are willing to safeguard some of the world's most threatened marine predators but not others.
On the last day of voting at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas on Saturday in Paris, the group voted to ban the fishing, retention and sale of oceanic whitetip sharks and six types of hammerheads: great, scalloped, scoophead, smalleye, smooth and whitefin.
But delegates did little to curtail the catch of bluefin tuna on either side of the Atlantic, even though scientists have warned that the species is in danger of becoming commercially extinct.
They reduced the 2011 fishing quota in the eastern Atlantic, close to Europe, by just 4% to 12,900 tons, and in the western Atlantic they cut it from 1.800 to 1.750 tons for next year. The commission also declined to shut down fishing in the tuna's spawning grounds in the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Mexico.
An Atlantic bluefin can weight up to 650 kilos and fetch as much as 100,000 US dollars in Japan, but stocks have plunged by more than 80% since 1970s, according to western scientists.
Environmental groups said the quota fell short of what was needed to sustain healthy stock levels, noting that illegal fishing and under-reporting of catches might mean stock estimates were over-optimistic.
Greed and mismanagement have taken priority over sustainability and common sense, WWF Mediterranean fisheries head Sergi Tudela said. This measly quota reduction is insufficient to ensure the recovery of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea.
The warm-blooded bluefin tuna is found in the North Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean, where big commercial fishing operations fatten captured fish in enclosures. France, Italy and Spain catch most of the Atlantic bluefin consumed in the world and 80% of the haul goes to Japan.
While environmental groups lamented the cut as too little, the fishing industry said it was too much.
Serge Lazarbal, head of the bluefin tuna commission at the French Fishing Committee, said his industry would have preferred the existing quota to be retained.
The European Commission had said the catch should be cut to 6,000 tones to give the fish a real chance of recovery, but the European Union's Mediterranean members shot down that proposal even before the 10-day ICCAT meeting started on November 17.
Despite the rejection of her proposal, EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki said in a statement that the meeting had made a step in the right direction for sustainable management of bluefin tuna.
No record of the voting in Paris was published. The deliberations of the 48 member nations' delegates were closed to the news media, and even the nongovernmental organizations that attended as observers were turned away from many of the backroom dealings.
''Despite the flowery rhetoric, it was business as usual for ICCAT,'' said Michael Hirshfield, the chief scientist for the advocacy group Oceana. ''It's clear that countries didn't come to Paris ready to conserve the species they are responsible for. As the world watched, ICCAT said, 'I can't.' ''
However, the increased protection for sharks whose fins are used to make the Asian delicacy shark's-fin soup and which have suffered severe declines in recent decades from fishing was welcomed by Matt Rand, who directs global shark conservation for the Pew Environment Group.
Populations of oceanic whitetip shark have declined 99% in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean, while hammerheads' numbers also have dropped 99% in the Mediterranean.
Mr Rand said the decisions showed that policymakers were responding to the criticism they received this year after the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora failed to adopt any measure restricting the global trade in species such as oceanic whitetip and hammerheads.
Delegates also adopted a measure penalizing any member country that does not submit data on its catch of shortfin mako sharks by 2013. Those nations will be prohibited in the future from fishing shortfin makos, second only to blue sharks in terms of the total number caught in the Atlantic.
Some countries defeated other shark protections: Canada, which has a porbeagle shark fishery, helped block a European Union proposal to ban catching it.