PARIS - Stocks of tuna in the Mediterranean may be on the point of collapse, the environmental pressure group, Greenpeace, has warned.
A month-long voyage of investigation in the Mediterranean bluefin tuna fishing grounds by the Greenpeace vessel, Esperanza, found a catastrophic shortage of the giant fish.
"The crews of fishing vessels, scientists and our own observations are all now pointing in the same disturbing direction," said Francois Provost of Greenpeace France.
"We spent a week with the French and Spanish fleets around the Balearic Islands. They did not catch a single tuna. It is the same story to the north of Egypt. Some fish are being found to the south of Turkey but they are small.
A catastrophe is in the making."
Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and other pressure groups have been warning for years that intensive demand from Japan could rapidly reduce the stocks of Mediterranean bluefin tuna to the same unsustainable levels as their cousins in the Atlantic and the Pacific.
The Esperanza voyage - and leaks from scientific reports to the main, international tuna protection agency - suggest that the Mediterranean bluefin may now be close to the point of no return.
Greenpeace called yesterday for all tuna fishing in the Med to be halted until new, more drastic controls are in place.
There have been reports that the Madrid-based International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) is also preparing to call for a drastic reduction in tuna fishing in the Mediterranaean within the next few weeks.
Leaks from within ICCAT on the state of tuna stocks are "very alarming", Mr Provost of Greenpeace said.
An official at ICCAT said, however, that the 42-nation organisation cannot, under the terms of its charter, do anything until its next annual meeting in November.
The officials said that ICCAT is forbidden to comment on tuna stocks between annual conferences.
"A month ago we asked the question: Where have all the tuna gone? Well, now we know the answer - we may be witnessing the collapse of the bluefin tuna stock from the Mediterranean Sea," said Sebastian Losada of Greenpeace Spain, who is aboard the Esperanza.
ICCAT has proved to be completely unable to enforce the rules." In May, Greenpeace and the WWF published a joint report which suggested that 45,000 tonnes of tuna were hauled from the Med in each of the last two years.
The official quota is 29,000 tonnes. Ninety per cent of the Mediterranean tuna goes to Japan, whose appetite for sushi is blamed by environmental groups for destroying the tuna stocks in the Pacific and west Atlantic.
Greenpeace also claimed yesterday that it had observed 11 Japanese long-line boats, fishing illegally off Sicily early this month.
The Japanese boats have licences to fish in the Mediterranean but the long line fishery is supposed to be closed in June.
The bluefin tuna is the largest of the ten tuna species in the world - and the most prized by the Japanese.
The "western" Atlantic - or American - fishery had to be closed through over-fishing in 1998 and has not yet recovered.
Eastern Atlantic stocks are also desperately low, increasing the pressure on the Mediterranean.