The fishing quota for prized southern bluefin tuna has been lifted from its all-time low, in what fishers say is proof the severely depleted species is recovering.
The gourmet sashimi fish found mainly off southern Australia slumped to around 5 per cent of its original stock size under international longlining pressure over 50 years.
Southern bluefin is on conservation groups' fish-eating advisory black lists, particularly after it was found to have been devastated by a hidden 20-year Japanese overcatch.
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But recent stock assessments show a dramatic increase in the number of juvenile fish, and sustained strength in the population of older fish, according to the Australian Southern Bluefin Tuna Association.
''We are celebrating the recovery of the stock," the association's chief executive, Brian Jeffriess, said yesterday.
Next year, fishers based at Port Lincoln, South Australia, will be able to take 4528 tonnes of bluefin, up around 500 tonnes on this year, and the quota will slowly rise over the following two years.
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The six-nation Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna met in Bali this week for what the Australian delegation said was the most important meeting in its history.
The commission agreed a total quota rise of one third in the $1 billion fishery over the three-year period, from the current 9449 tonnes to 12,449 tonnes.
Crucially for Australia, the commission also agreed to impose a sophisticated fishery management scheme to keep a regular check on the sustainability of the catch - a world first for any tuna fishery.
The Fisheries Minister, Joe Ludwig, said agreement on the scheme was a vital step towards rebuilding the stock.
The fish's ''critically endangered'' status was recently reaffirmed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and supported by scientific advice to the federal Environment Department.
But a departmental advisory committee said that given the highly migratory nature of SBT stock, the best chance of maximising recovery remained with globally co-ordinated management, and it rejected a trade ban.
TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, said the commission's outcome was a good first step. ''But it's as if the patient was still in the emergency department - it's not out of danger yet,'' said marine programme leader, Glenn Sant.
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Humane Society International said a zero quota was still the best way to protect the fish, and it was time to turn attention to greater protection of seabirds, sharks and turtles caught in longlines by the fishery.
The Coalition spokesman for Fisheries, Senator Richard Colbeck, said the increase was a testament to industry discipline, in the face of conservationist doomsday predictions.
The quota remains a far cry from the peak of bluefin tuna fishing, when up to 80,000 tonnes a year was taken in the 1960s.