MARRAKECH, Morocco (AP) — Countries fishing the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean agreed Tuesday to expand the annual quota for prized Bluefin tuna to reflect an improvement in their stocks. Environmentalists insisted the increase was excessive and premature.

The 50-nation International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas agreed to hike the quota from 24,000 tons this year to 28,000 next year, with a further 4,000 tons added in each of the following two years.

The decision means the quota has more than doubled from five years ago, when once depleted stocks of Bluefin tuna, a delicacy in sushi and sashimi dishes the world over, first started showing the potential of a recovery.

"We have been able to decide a gradual increase of captures, by staying careful. And we are staying within the scientific advice," Stefaan Depypere, the head of the European Union delegation said in an interview.

Environmentalists insisted the advice was more ambivalent and were bitterly disappointed since they maintain that the recovery of the Bluefin is still too fragile to permit such major increases in fishing quotas.

"This year was an enormous step backwards for sustainable tuna fisheries," said Paulus Tak of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Considering how many species have been overfished to near commercial extinction in the past few decades, from cod off eastern Canada to Mediterranean Bluefin, the challenge of increasing catch quotas and still safeguarding stocks is daunting and fraught with risk.

"The status of the stocks was ignored," said Tak. "Instead states decided to catch more fish, faster than ever." Environmentalists had called for a slight increase in catch quotas at best.

Some environmental groups are troubled by the ICCAT's scientific findings and think they might be overly optimistic.

But influential partners like the 28-nation European Union and Japan believe the scientific advice has underpinned a rise in the annual catch quota to 36,000 tons by 2020. The EU said it is moving from Bluefin recovery to management of the stocks and will close off some loopholes in the system to improve efficiency.

Bluefin tuna's annual market value stands around $200 million at the dock and four times more at the final point of sale.

___

Casert wrote from Brussels