Japan win on bluefin tuna showed deft hand at CITES endangered species meeting

The experienced and large delegation from Japan showed a deft hand in its win against a bluefin tuna ban and other measures at the 175-nation CITES meeting on endangered species in Qatar.

David Guttenfelder/AP
A fish dealer walks past a tuna at his stall inside Tsukiji Wholesale Market in Tokyo, Japan, March 19. Delegates at a conference of the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Doha rejected a proposal to ban trade in bluefin tuna.

Using backroom horse-trading skills honed by years of negotiations and maneuvering at the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the battle-hardened officials of Japan's Fisheries Agency were able to push through their agenda at the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Doha – leaving their less experienced European and American counterparts in their wake.

The 30-strong Japanese delegation won vote after vote – surprising many at the 175-nation confab with their margins of victory. And with the proposal to extend the limited protection given to the porbeagle shark defeated at the final session on March 25, the Japanese and their allies were 7 and 0 in their campaign against the inclusion of a variety of marine species in CITES.

“We were very shocked at just how quickly such big decisions were made, and with the big numbers they managed to carry,” says Wakao Hanaoka, a spokesperson for Greenpeace Japan in Tokyo.

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Japanese officials refute any suggestions of hardball lobbying or “vote buying,” though Japan has been accused of using such tactics at IWC meetings for years in defense of its whaling programs. “The Japanese government has in the past used overseas aid as a weapon to get its way at the IWC,” claims Mr. Hanaoka.

Japan embassy serves delegates bluefin tuna

Atlantic bluefin tuna was the subject of the fiercest battle of the 13-day meeting in the Qatari capital. The US Department of the Interior, which supported a proposed ban on commercial trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna, says that stocks of the fish have dropped some 72 percent, mostly over the past decade.

But Japan argued that many nations' economies would be hurt by a ban. And it turned some heads by serving delegates bluefin tuna sushi at the Japanese embassy the night before the crucial vote on the ban.

The ban, proposed by western Mediterranean nation Monaco, would have allowed EU members to fish and trade the bluefin among themselves: an arrangement that smacked of Western double standards to some in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Japanese lobbyists were able to play on that perception in their pitches to many countries in those regions.

Some, however, are convinced that Japanese negotiators wouldn’t have been up to the job by themselves.

Teaming up with China?

“I just don’t think Japanese diplomacy is that sophisticated; take Japan’s application for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council – not one single country supported us,” argues Takashi Koyama, visiting professor of politics at Akita University. “If you compare Japanese diplomats to Chinese diplomats, for example, in terms of their English ability and their knowledge about to act, there’s no comparison. The Japanese are not good enough.”

Rumors also circle of a quid pro quo arrangement at CITES with China, to exploit its growing international influence.

“The Japanese government did a deal with China. They agreed to support China on the shark fishing ban – because shark fin soup is the most important thing to the Chinese – if China would support Japan on the bluefin tuna issue,” says a source familiar with the negotiations.

Japanese media coverage varied to an unusual degree, outlet to outlet, from what is normally a remarkably uniform voice. The ostensibly liberal Asahi Shimbun newspaper opened its coverage of the bluefin vote with: “Developing nations and an apparent push from China led to a rejection...by a margin that surprised even Japan,” apparently suggesting the votes had materialized without any pressure from Tokyo.

The Nikkei, the leading business daily, was more accepting of the realpolitik, calling the vote a “victory for Japan's extensive lobbying efforts.”

But environmentalists say these victories are hollow ones.

“Japan is hosting the UN 2010 International Year of Biodiversity, but what it is doing in Qatar represents the exact opposite of biodiversity,” says Hanaoka, the Greenpeace Japan spokesman.

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