Bluefin tuna ban tops concerns at CITES endangered species meeting

The battle over a proposed bluefin tuna ban intensifies as the 175-nation Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) gets under way in Qatar.

Issei Kato/Reuters
A wholesaler stands between frozen bluefin tuna laid out in rows at Tsukiji fish market, Japan's largest fish auction house, in Tokyo Saturday.

The bluefin tuna battle is heating up, with Japan saying it has China's support in opposing a ban on trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna.

If true, that would set the two Asian powers against the US and the European Union over the divisive issue.

Japan has been pushing its case as the meeting in Qatar of the 175-nation Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) gets under way, reports Agence France-Presse.

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Japan on Tuesday said it has China's support in opposing a global ban on trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna that is now being debated at an international meeting in Qatar.

Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu said that "we will do our best" to block a trade ban, which has US and European Union support, at the world talks on wildlife protection.

"China has not announced its stance officially, but is actively lobbying other countries to oppose" the ban, Akamatsu told reporters in Tokyo.

Meanwhile, the radical antiwhaling group Sea Shepherd, fresh from its harassment of the Japanese whaling fleet, says it will now send ships to the Mediterranean to protect bluefin tuna by cutting fishing nets, reports Australia's ABC News.

The proposed ban is the hottest issue at the CITES gathering. The issue will be debated this week, but a vote won't likely come until next week. A two-thirds majority is needed to pass the ban.

The bluefin tuna ban is among a number of initiatives being considered at CITES because of growing concern over sustainability, according to the UN Environmental Programme.

Many of these proposals reflect growing international concern about the accelerating destruction of the world's marine and forest ecosystems through overfishing and excessive logging, and the potential impacts of climate change on the biological resources of the planet. The UN General Assembly has declared 2010 the international year of biodiversity and the CITES Conference will be one of the key occasions governments will have this year to take action to protect biodiversity.

Activists said ahead of the CITES meeting that the vote was too close to call, according to New Zealand's TVNZ.

Japan, already in the hot seat for its whaling practices, is catching flak from environmentalists as the key country opposing the ban.

Japan consumes three-quarters of the global bluefin catch. Raw bluefin tuna is prized at Japanese seafood restaurants. Bluefin routinely fetch $10,000 for a single fish and sometimes far more at Tokyo markets.

Environmentalists say Atlantic bluefin are being fished at an unsustainable rate, and only a ban can save the species, argues Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in the Huffington Post.

Whaling battle lines

The battle lines aren't quite the same as those over whaling, though. Australia -- one of Japan's fiercest critics on whaling -- has said it prefers more regulation to manage Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks, rather than an outright ban. Australia has its own lucrative industry fishing "southern" bluefin tuna.

The US supports a ban out of concern of the "longterm viability" of the bluefin tuna, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

While Western Atlantic bluefin spawning stocks have dropped by 82 percent from 1970 to 2007, those stocks have stabilized at “a very low” population level, the Interior Department reported.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean stocks have continued to plummet 72 percent, with most of that drop occurring in the past decade. In 2007, just 78,724 metric tons of spawning biomass remained in the Eastern Atlantic from a peak of more than 305,000 tons in the mid-1950s, the department said.

Japan has said it would not comply with a bluefin ban, if passed.

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