Japan Objects to Proposed Bluefin Ban

The global body that sets policy for endangered species is facing a challenge from Japan over a proposal to limit the number of bluefin tuna that can be traded. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is alarmed by declining bluefin stocks and will consider a proposal to ban the export of the fish. But Japan consumes about three-quarters of the world's bluefin catch and says it is so dissatisfied with the proposal that it may opt out if the ban is approved. Japan, though a member since 1980, could effectively circumvent CITES by trading with other countries that also choose to opt out, thereby weakening a major pillar of global efforts to preserve species. And herein lies the rub: solutions to global problems like declining fish stocks require global governance. But if countries can opt out of decisions they find distasteful, despite being members of a global grouping, then governance loses credibility. – YaleGlobal

Japan Objects to Proposed Bluefin Ban

Yuka Hayashi
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

TOKYO—Japan, whose unique seafood-eating culture is coming under increasing criticism as fish stocks decline, is facing another challenge as an international wildlife protection body prepares a ban on trading of bluefin tuna, a pricey breed prized in Japan as a sushi and sashimi ingredient.

With a ban on bluefin tuna import and export in the Atlantic likely, the question is whether Japan will honor or ignore the move to halt the sharp decline in the population of the rare and pricey fish, WSJ's Heath Cozens reports.

Alarmed by sharp declines in the population of the species from overfishing, member nations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species are likely to approve a proposal to ban import and export of bluefin tuna in the Atlantic at their meeting in Doha, Qatar, starting next Saturday. A number of nations, including the U.S., have expressed support for the proposal, making it likely it will win two-thirds of the votes needed to pass at the 175-member body, government officials say.

Japan, which consumes 70% to 80% of the global catch of bluefin and about a quarter of all tuna, has unsuccessfully fought the proposal, and Japanese government officials are now threatening to "opt out"—essentially defy the consensus of the international community—if it is approved in its current form.

"Japan would have no choice but to take a reservation if the CITES vote to include bluefin in Appendix 1," Hisashi Endo, a negotiator from Japan's Fisheries Agency, said, referring to the list of endangered species whose trading is prohibited.

Under the terms of the convention, Japan wouldn't face any penalty for opting out—though it is likely to face widespread criticism. The next step would be for countries seeking a ban to try and negotiated a compromise with Tokyo.

The proposed ban is the latest headache for Japan's fisheries officials who have faced increasing heat from environmentalists and other governments in recent years as the desire to protect marine resources has grown around the world. Japan has been forced to curtail catches of other types of tuna in recent years, and is competing more and more with China and other increasingly wealthy Asian neighbors as their demand for seafood rises.

Japan is also under pressure to stop whaling, a less-significant but long-lasting practice in the nation.

In opposing the CITES proposal, Japan says managing bluefin resources should be done by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, another international body, made up of a smaller number of fishing nations. "We aren't convinced bluefin tuna should be thrown in the same league as the tiger and the giant panda, whose populations number in thousands," Mr. Endo said in an interview.

The new agreement could be weakened significantly if Japan, the primary player, stays out. Any nation that declines to adhere to the ban would continue to trade in the species as if the ban didn't exit, providing that it can find a partner also opting out of the agreement. Japanese officials say other tuna-eating nations like South Korea and developing countries along the Atlantic and the Mediterranean will also likely disregard the ban, though none has formally lodged opposition to the proposal like Japan has.

The European Union has expressed support for the ban but proposed changes that would make it less strict. The EU, which includes bluefin fishing nations like Italy and Spain, wants to introduce a 12-month grace period before the implementation of the pact and set up a standing committee to review the ban later this year. It also wants to allow "artisanal fishing firms" along the Mediterranean coast to continue fishing to supply their local markets.

Driven by what environmentalists call "luxury fish markets" in Japan, the stocks of bluefin tuna in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean oceans are estimated to have dropped to 15% to 30% of the levels four to five decades ago before large-scale international trading in the fish started, according to the CITES.

"Whatever has been tried so far [to manage the resources] hasn't been successful," said David Morgan, chief scientist at the Geneva secretariat of the CITES. "Something needs to change. Otherwise there will be no fish left."

Mr. Morgan said member nations will work during the conference to forge a consensus agreement and prevent some members from entering objections. To accommodate opposing nations, the proposal could be revised to make it "less strict," he added.

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