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Bluefin Ban Voted Down

If you are a sushi lover with a preference for bluefin tuna, my advice is to eat up during the next couple years because the ocean’s most iconic fish is destined for extinction. (The World Wildlife Fund predicts all bluefin will be gone by 2012; currently we – mostly the Japanese – take 1 million of the big fish each year, out of a total population of 3.75 million, impossible numbers for the fish to adequately reproduce.)

The morning auction of bluefin tuna at Tokyo's Tsukiji market

The morning auction of bluefin tuna at Tokyo's Tsukiji market

There had been hope this week at a U.N. meeting of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) that bluefin might be added to the endangered species list, slowing its commercial viability. But today, with the EU opting out of voting (scared to put its tuna fishermen out of business, even after France had intimated it would vote for the ban) and the Japanese pressuring hard, the listing was voted down 68-20. (View a clip from our film-in-progress, “In Pursuit of the Last Bluefin.”)

David Jolly’s report in the NYT: Efforts to ban international trade in bluefin tuna and polar bears were rejected Thursday by a United Nations conference on endangered species, as delegates in Doha, Qatar refused to back the U.S.-backed measures.

A proposal by Monaco to extend the highest level of U.N. protection to the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin, a fish prized by sushi lovers for its fatty belly flesh, failed by a lopsided vote of 20-68, with 30 abstentions, Juan Carlos Vasquez, a spokesman for the U.N. organization, said.

“It wasn’t a very good day for conservation,” Mr. Vasquez said. “It shows the governments are not ready to adopt trade bans as a way to protect species.”

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora counts 175 member governments, though far fewer were represented for the votes in Doha. European Union nations, whose fleets are most responsible for the overfishing of the bluefin, abstained from voting.

The rejection was a defeat for environmentalists and a clear victory for the Japanese government, which had vowed to go all out to stop the measure. Japan, which consumes more than three-quarters of the Mediterranean bluefin catch, argued that the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or Iccat, an intergovernmental organization, should be responsible for regulating the stock, not the United Nations.

While there is near-universal agreement that bluefin stocks are in danger, Japan’s argument resonated with other fishing nations, which were uneasy about what would have marked the first intrusion by the convention into a major commercial fishery.

But an independent review commissioned by Iccat shows that its own record on managing the fish“ is widely regarded as an international disgrace.” The agency has presided over more than two-thirds decline in the stock since 1970 — with much of that drop coming in just the last decade with the onset of huge industrial fishing operations and tuna “ranching.” And while the organization, which has no effective enforcement mechanism, has the authority to set quotas, year after year it has set the catch above the level that its own scientists say is safe to ensure the health of the species.

Susan Lieberman, director of international policy for the Pew Environment Group, said Thursday’s vote was “ an unfortunate step backwards.” She added: “This deeply disappointing and irresponsible vote signals a bleak future for this iconic fish.”

This is the second time Japan has defeated a proposal at the conference to protect the bluefin. A similar proposal by Sweden failed at 1992 UN convention in Kyoto. While the bluefin vote was held by secret ballot, Japanese officials said this week that China and South Korea also opposed the measure, and Canada openly opposed it.

In a joint statement, Janez Potocnik, the European environment commissioner and Maria Damanaki, the commissioner for maritime affairs and fisheries, said they were “disappointed” with the outcome, and called for Iccat to “take its responsibility to ensure that stocks are managed in a sustainable way.” If no action is taken, they warned, “there is a very serious danger that the bluefin tuna will no longer exist.”

Bluefin Added to Endangered Species List?

A month ago I reported on the first bluefin tuna of the year sold at auction during the first week of the year at the big Japan fish market Tsukiji, a 513-pounder sold for $177,000, to a trio of sushi entrepreneurs who split the price and the fish, which ended up on restaurant platters across Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Bluefin Tuna at Auction, Tokyo

Bluefin Tuna at Auction, Tokyo

If the EU has anything to say about it, much of its bluefin – which makes up the bulk sold in Japan — may soon be off-limits to the world market; last week France agreed to join the majority of the 27-nation union to list bluefin as an “Appendix 1” endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). With that, bluefin would be afforded the same protection as pandas and whales, effectively banning international trade in the fish. A final decision will be made in Doha next month, at a meeting of the 175 nations signatory to the CITES treaty.

The Japanese, obviously, will oppose the listing. The U.S. hasn’t yet weighed in officially. Bluefin in the same category as pandas and whales? It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? But the statistics are stunning: Since 1978 the bluefin population in the Atlantic has dropped by 82 percent, largely due to the global boom in sushi, a burgeoning demand in Japan. About one million big bluefin are caught each year (out of a total global population under four million) and eighty percent are sent straight to Japan.

Of course adding the fish to a list will hardly insure it’s future (think whales in the Southern Ocean, despite international bans on all whale hunting). It’s not a perfect solution. Banning bluefin will take a toll on fishermen around the world; experts also warn that the banning of trade would not end the sale of tuna in restaurants and stores. Of the other species, including yellowfin, skipjack, bigeye and albacore, the skipjack is the only one not suffering from serious population decline linked to overfishing. One problem with banning bluefin is that it will increase pressure on the other tuna species.

The U.S. fishing industry – especially the American Bluefin Tuna Association – is “strongly opposed” to the listing. Its executive director suggests it will lead to a sizable black market, “in fact, we believe a listing has the possibility of doing more damage than good.”