By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
The EU called the bluefin an "emblematic species" but voted for higher catches
Countries involved in the Mediterranean bluefin tuna trade have voted to maintain catches nearly 50% above what scientists say are "safe" levels.
Environment groups labelled the move, by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat), as a "mockery of science".
They put most blame on the EU which, they said, used trade issues to bully smaller nations into giving support.
Earlier this year Spain and Japan had called for a suspension of the fishery.
Iccat's scientists had said next year's total allowable catch (Tac) should not exceed 15,000 tonnes; but on the final day of its annual meeting, Iccat members set a figure of 22,000 tonnes.
They also rejected the scientists' call for a closure of the fishery in the spawning months of May and June.
The scientists had warned the commission that "a collapse in the near future is a possibility" given the high number of boats engaged in the lucrative trade.
"The spawning closure was probably more important than the Tac issue because actually the Tac was never respected," said Sergi Tudela, head of the fisheries programme at the environment group WWF.
"It was the one thing that might have stopped overfishing", he told BBC News from the Iccat meeting.
"The decision is a mockery of science and a mockery of the world; Iccat has shown that it doesn't deserve the mandate to manage this iconic fishery."
Earlier this year, an independent expert report branded Iccat's management of the tuna fishery a "disgrace", and put the blame on the shoulders of major fishing nations which, it said, routinely flouted the rules.
In 2006, Iccat scientists estimated that illegal fishing in the Mediterranean added about 30% onto the official catch figures.
The bulk of the catches come from purse seine boats
The bargaining position adopted by the European Commission - which represents all EU members on Iccat - came as something of a surprise.
At the World Conservation Congress in October, Spain - the biggest tuna-fishing country - backed a suspension of the fishery, and Italy was reported to have gone further and called for a moratorium.
The EU's opening statement at Iccat acknowledged that "the situation of the bluefin tuna is critical", and that "urgent action is needed to ensure the sustainability of this emblematic stock".
The reasons why the European Commission decided, against this backdrop, to argue for catches considerably above the scientific advice are not yet clear.
Some conservationists at the meeting said the EU had threatened developing nations with trade penalties on goods such as bananas unless they backed the European position.
Conservation groups which have long lobbied Iccat members to adopt scientists' advice are now likely to take their fight to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).
Numbers of the East Atlantic stock of bluefin have fallen so fast that listing it as a threatened species is a possibility. The southern bluefin is already categorised as Critically Endangered.
"The game is over - Iccat has missed its last chance to save the bluefin tuna from stock collapse," said Sebastian Losada, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace in Spain.
"It's time to take the fishery out of their hands and look to conventions like Cites to impose trade restrictions on the species."