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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris. One of the most magnificent fish in the sea is in trouble. This week, an international committee that's responsible for protecting the Atlantic bluefin tuna ignored its own scientists' recommendations. It approved a quota for fishermen that puts the tuna in serious jeopardy. As a result, scientists say most Atlantic bluefin fisheries could collapse entirely and in just a few years. NPR's Richard Harris explains.

RICHARD HARRIS: The story of over-fishing is being played out all over the world, but the bluefin tuna story is especially heartbreaking for biologists. These magnificent tuna fetch top dollar for sushi. In the ocean, they can reach more than 10 feet in length and can cut through the water at speeds of over 25 miles an hour.

Dr. MICHAEL HIRSCHFIELD (Chief Scientist, Oceana): They're just so big and so fast and so special.

HARRIS: Mike Hirschfield is chief scientist at Oceana, a conservation group.

Dr. HIRSCHFIELD: They are a good example of what was once in the ocean, what was common in the ocean, and now we're losing.

HARRIS: The Atlantic bluefin tuna is supposed to be protected by an organization called the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. But at its meeting this week, European representatives held out for a fishing quota for these tuna 50 percent above the upper safe limit determined by the commission's own scientists. This is yet more bad news for the tuna. Already, the stocks of these fish in the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic are heavily over-fished. Rebecca Lent, who represented the United States at the talks, said fishermen already catch far more than they're allowed to, quite a bit of it illegally.

Dr. REBECCA LENT (Director, Office of International Affairs, NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service): Even if you just look at reported catch, that is still greater than the allowable catch and it's twice the level that the scientists recommended. So, any way you measure it, there's way too much fishing going on.

HARRIS: European Commission representatives who pushed for the much higher catch levels didn't respond to NPR's requests for comment. But Carl Gustaf Lundin at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Switzerland says the reason is clear.

Mr. CARL GUSTAF LUNDIN (Head, Global Marine Programme, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Switzerland): They're already, you know, a depressed industry. A lot of people are close to having to stop any kind of activity. So, rather than take the hit this year, they would, you know, try to prolong their efforts another couple of years and hope for miraculous recovery.

HARRIS: Miracles turn out to be pretty rare. Over the past few decades, Lundin says tuna stocks have declined by well over 90 percent. The latest decision, he says, pushes the tuna much closer to commercial extinction.

Mr. LUNDIN: Well, the fact that we already have a collapse, I mean, it's already down to a fraction of what we used to be able to fish. So, the collapse has happened. Now, we're just putting the last few nails in the coffin.

HARRIS: He says it's likely that Europe's commercial tuna fishery could be gone in just a few years. And though fishermen on our side of the Atlantic abide by science-based quotas, bluefin tuna stocks here are extremely depleted and in jeopardy as well. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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