By Anjali Nayar

As fisheries regulators meet next week to weigh the fate of Atlantic bluefin tuna, they are coming under mounting pressure to suspend the entire bluefin industry until allegations of mismanagement can be resolved.

The Madrid-based International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the body responsible for managing tuna fishing, gathers in Paris on 17 November to assess the state of bluefin tuna fisheries and set future catch quotas.

But the meeting will be overshadowed by a report, released this week, which documents a decade of illegal fishing of eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks, leading to the fishery's near-collapse and a black market worth around US$4 billion.

A single Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) can weigh more than 500 kilograms and sell for more than $100,000 in Japanese markets. But the profitable market for the species has left it depleted to roughly 35% of its historic levels, according to ICCAT.

The new report -- Looting the Seas -- is the culmination of an eight-month investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a group formed by the non-profit Center for Public Integrity in Washington DC.

"Those of us who have worked on bluefin tuna aren't surprised," says Sue Liebermann, Director of International Policy at the Pew Environment Group in Washington DC, a non-profit conservation advocacy group. "All the information on the fraud, the illegal trade, and the doctoring of paperwork is now fully documented," she adds. "Governments can no longer hide saying there isn't proof that this has happened."

Caught out

The ICIJ report claims that from 1998 to 2007, more than one third of all eastern Atlantic bluefin caught were taken illegally. The alleged offences include catching undersized fish, under-reporting catch sizes and violating quotas set by ICCAT.

ICCAT is often criticized for making its quotas too lenient, as well as failing to enforce them (see 'Bad news for tuna is bad news for CITES'). The ICCAT's scientific committee says it is aware of severe misreporting from 1998 to 2007, which it highlighted in its most recent scientific report.

During that period, ICCAT estimates the annual catch of bluefin was between 50,000 and 60,000 tonnes, about 40% higher than the reported catch of 30,000-35,000 tonnes, says Jean-Marc Fromentin, an ecologist from the Mediterranean and Tropical Fisheries Research Centre in Sète, France, and a member of the ICCAT scientific committee. During this period, ICCAT's scientific committee recommended that catch not exceed 15,000 to 25,000 tonnes, he adds.

"During that period, it was really bad," says Fromentin. "There was a great deal of overfishing and under-reporting of catch everywhere, but especially in the Mediterranean."

But Fromentin maintains the situation has improved in the last three years because of new enforcement measures. Observers have been posted onto fishing boats and at fish farms, where tuna are fattened before being harvested. Before they are sold, all fish must now have the right paperwork: a bluefin catch document (BCD), which tracks the fish up the supply chain.

The new report alleges that many fish end up in the market without complete paperwork, but Fromentin says the system has drastically reduced under-reporting of catches.

That does not mean an end to over-fishing though, says Andrew Rosenberg, senior vice president for science and knowledge at Conservation International, an advocacy group based in Arlington, Virginia, and a former fisheries negotiator for the United States. "They've reduced the under-reporting, but you can't really get rid of the black-market fish," he says. The black market includes fish caught by nations that are not members of ICCAT, as well as fish caught by vessels registered under 'flags of convenience', bringing them under the jurisdiction of countries that are not ICCAT members.

Although environmental advocates such as the Pew Environment Group will be pushing ICCAT nations to suspend bluefin fishing at next week's meeting, it is more likely that the talks will see countries re-affirm existing quotas. However, they may also pledge their support for tougher documentation. That in itself, says Rosenberg, would be an achievement.