BRUSSELS — 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 consider the interests of tuna fishermen.
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.
Bluefin tuna stocks in the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean have dropped 60 percent from 1997 to 2007, and the current Mediterranean fishing quota is 13,500 metric tons a year.
Some conservationists want quotas slashed at the international meeting, while others want fishing suspended entirely, saying that illegal fishing is rampant in the Mediterranean. The conservation group WWF says the species is "on the brink of extinction."
EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki said her latest negotiating mandate "is not based on the Commission's proposal," which had focused on recommendations from marine scientists. She now must defend a position at a meeting of 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.
The EU statement Thursday did not say what quota it would press for at the international meeting.
But Remi Parmentier of the Pew Environment Group said he had been told the EU now "has no intention of going beyond a reduction of 2,000 tons" from the current quota. He said Damanaki earlier had reportedly been seeking to halve the quota.
Parmentier said he was disappointed with the EU and its "business as usual" approach.
"It's no secret that under the leadership of France, a number of EU countries have been undermining and sabotaging the (fishing) proposal from the European Commission," he said.
France, which has a large fishing industry, has said it wanted the current quota unchanged, and its agriculture ministry did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
In March, Japan and other Asian nations blocked efforts at the United Nations to declare the fish an endangered species. Japan consumes about 80 percent of the world's Atlantic bluefin tuna.
Angela Doland in Paris contributed to this report.