11/17/2013 02:00 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Environmentalists urge Canada not to ask for greater quota of bluefin tuna

HALIFAX - Conservationists are urging the federal government not to ask for a greater quota of western Atlantic bluefin tuna when officials meet in South Africa to discuss the lucrative, but vulnerable species.

Susanna Fuller of the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax said Canada risks setting a dangerous precedent if it asks members of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas to allow fishermen to catch more of the prized fish.

Fuller wants the Canadian delegation to hold the quota at 1,750 tonnes or less, particularly since there is little recent science on the health of the stock that has been overfished for years in the race to satisfy the huge demand for sushi-grade fish.

She said that just because fishermen may be seeing more of the fish doesn't mean the catches should be increased.

"Itopens up the door for other countries to disregard scientific advice and say, 'We want more bluefin this year,'" she said before the start of the meetings in Cape Town on Monday.

"Canada has typically been a proponent of using the best available scientific advice to have precautionary management, but in this case they're doing the exact opposite."

Fisheries spokesman Frank Stanek refused to reveal what it will propose at the meetings, saying only that "Canada's position will continue to be in line with its commitment to sustainable, science-based fisheries management decisions while ensuring Canada's economic interests are protected."

However, it stood alone at last year's ICCAT meeting in asking for 250 more tonnes of quota, which was rejected by other countries and further angered environmentalists who say Canada is clearly offside in efforts to conserve the species.

Fuller says it was hypocritical of Fisheries to ask for more quota while the same department is undertaking a review of the species to determine if it should be listed as endangered.

The department was conducting public consultations on whether to list the fish as endangered under Canada's Species At Risk Act. It could effectively shut down the commercial fishery if it passes, something Fuller doubts will happen when the decision is made in 2015.

"There is absolutely no precedent anywhere in terrestrial species that are going through endangered species listing for a government to then decide, 'You know what, let's just kill a bunch of them,'" she said.

Scott Wallace of the David Suzuki Foundation agreed, saying Canada should be promoting a precautionary approach since it has endured other fishery collapses.

"A country like Canada should really be in there leading the conservation charge," he said from Comox, B.C. "Instead, we're in there fighting over scraps. ... I hope Canada doesn't embarrass itself again."

Scientists say there is little clear science on the health of the stock and that countries should hold off raising the quota until more is known about the abundance of the immense fish. The last full stock assessment for the species was done in 2010 and updated in 2012. The next one is in 2015.

Fisheries says bluefin landings in Atlantic Canada were worth about $11.6 million in 2012. A department spokeswoman said there has been a gradual increase in the spawning stock biomass to an estimated 36 per cent of the 1970 level in 2011, up from 27 per cent in 2003.