Paris: Ten days of backroom dealing come to a head on Saturday when fishing nations announce new catch quotas for Atlantic bluefin tuna, a species many scientists say is teetering on the brink.
Hanging in the balance is not only the long-term viability of bluefin stocks, but the credibility of the 48-member body that has, by its own reckoning, done a miserable job of managing them.
"I do hope, and I believe, that ICCAT`s `dark ages` are in the past," said Fabio Hazin, chairman of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.
"Up to 2008, commissioners were not listening to science. It was a disgrace," he said going into the meeting.
In the end, all the haggling over catch limits will come down to a single number.
The fishing industry and the countries that back them are in favour of rolling over the 2010 quota for bluefin tuna caught in the Atlantic and Mediterranean -- 13,500 tonnes -- for another year.
An October report by ICCAT`s scientific committee says this would put the species on track for a 60-percent chance of recovering to "maximum sustainable yield" by 2022.
Right now, its population is estimated to be at less than a third of that mark.
Environmentalists, along with some member states and scientists, say a 40-percent chance of failure is too high, and that even this estimate is based on optimistic assumptions and incomplete data.
"We are uncertain about the past, and probably more so about the future," acknowledged Gerald Scott, head of ICCAT`s scientific committee.
The United States wants to cut current limits, while the 27-nation European Union is officially calling for a "stable or partially reduced quota."
But the EU is, in fact, sharply divided. While the bloc`s major bluefin players -- France, Spain, Italy and Malta -- are pushing for the status quo, the European fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki, backed by Britain, has openly called for a catch limit of 6,000 tonnes.
The end-point numbers floating in the corridors of the closed-door meet Friday ranged between 10,000 and 13,000 tonnes.
France, meanwhile, is lobbying furiously behind the scenes for an amnesty on its "tuna debt", incurred in 2007 when it surpassed a national quota of 5,000 tonnes by more than 100 percent.
Without relief, it`s bluefin haul for 2011 will drop from about 2,000 to 500 tonnes, barely enough to keep a couple of commercial vessels busy during the one- or two-month long fishing season.
The ultimate arbiter may be Japan, which consumes more than 80 percent of Atlantic bluefin tuna in the form of gourmet sashimi and sushi costing up to 20 euros (25 dollars) a mouthful in high-end restaurants.
After years of looking the other way, Tokyo is pushing ICCAT to crack down on rampant illegal fishing and tighten compliance measures put in place over the last two years.
"Japan is saying the right things, but has not put its cards on the table yet," said Remi Parmentier, a Madrid-based consultant for the Pew Environment Group.
Tensions this year are running especially high because Mediterranean rim nations -- which account for almost all of the region`s authorised catch -- are renegotiating how to divide up the quota.
Libya, Turkey and Egypt are lobbying particularly hard to get larger slices of the shrinking tuna pie, according to sources sitting in on the discussions.
Any gains would likely come at the expense of the EU, whose 2010 allocation was more than 50 percent.
A proposal to create spawning sanctuaries in the Gulf of Mexico and six Mediterranean zones has failed to gain any traction, these sources say.
Industrial-scale fishing during the breeding season has been a major factor in driving down stocks, according to marine biologists.