Countries Weigh Ban on Bluefin Tuna Trade

17 March 2010

Momentum carrying the bluefin tuna towards an endangered species listing - and an effective trade ban - appears to be slowing as key countries align themselves with Japan, which strongly opposes such a prohibition.

Shortly before the start of the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) the EU surprised many with its announcement that it had reached a consensus and would vote for a ban at the Doha, Qatar meeting. The EU decision built on the momentum of an earlier US announcement that it would also push for an Appendix I listing for the fish. Species listed on Appendix I of CITES are considered to be "threatened with extinction," and are banned from trade among the 175 countries that are CITES members.

Shortly following the US announcement, Japan - the world's largest importer of bluefin - warned that it may not comply with CITES if the treaty blocks the country's access to the fish. The Associated Press now reports that Japan has managed to muster support for its decision in Doha from China and "several Arab countries." Those aligning themselves with Japan say the trade ban would be damaging to poor fishing nations and assert that the proposal is not backed by sound science. Some 80-90 per cent of the global bluefin tuna catch is exported to Japan, where it is sold as a premium dish in restaurants.

For years, conservationists have argued that the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the regulatory body responsible for bluefin tuna stocks, is incapable of adequately managing the industry.

"The regulatory mechanisms that have been relied upon have failed to do the job," said Tom Strickland, the US Interior Department's assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks. "We are literally at a moment where if we don't get this right, we could see this very, very special species really at risk for survival."

US, European support gives strong signal

Holding more than 50 per cent of the total bluefin catch quota, European countries along the Mediterranean play a major role in the industry. European maritime countries - such as Greece, Malta, France, and Spain - were initially opposed to adding bluefin to CITES Appendix I. However, France surprised many by agreeing to support the ban, but on the condition that it be delayed by 18 months.

Following France's move, the European Commission ratcheted up pressure on the outstanding member states by recommending that all EU countries back the ban with the French implementation condition. On 10 March, Brussels confirmed that the 27 EU member states would vote for an Appendix I listing for the fish.

But despite the positive momentum provided by the EU decision, critics say the Union's acceptance of France's 18-month delay is not in line with their stated concern.

"If the EU is serious about respecting scientific advice - as it claims - it should support an immediate closure of the bluefin tuna fishery as well as a ban in the international trade of bluefin tuna instead of imposing conditions and delays," said Raül Romeva, a European Green MEP.

France says the delay is needed to conduct scientific testing to confirm whether bluefin tuna stocks are at dangerously low levels, but green groups say the measure does not conform to CITES practices and is meant to appease local fishing communities as elections near.

"The best available data of barely four months ago already demonstrates as clear as day that stock levels are under 15 per cent of historical levels," said Sergi Tudela, head of the WWF Mediterranean's fisheries programme, referring to analyses published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and ICCAT itself.

The US had offered preliminary support for bringing bluefin tuna to CITES based on its assessment of ICCAT's adoption of adequate control measures. But despite reeling in catch quotas from 22,000 tonnes in 2009 to 13,500 tonnes for 2010 and decreasing the purse seiner fishing season by one month, the US has concluded that more needs to be done.

Appendix I uncertain

To be accepted, a proposal requires the backing of two thirds of the 175 CITES member countries.  Some observers had speculated that Japan could try to muster support from smaller countries in exchange for generous foreign aid packages. But early support from China and the Middle East was unexpected.

Some countries, including Australia and Peru, have said they are in favour of a weakened proposal that would regulate trade in bluefin rather than ban it outright. It is unclear at this point whether such a proposal would have the fish placed on Appendix II of CITES, where trade is only permitted with an export permit and a certificate of origin. This proposal is expected on 18 March.

Whatever the official decision in Doha, Tokyo has signalled that it will register a ‘reservation' on the ban - which in practical terms means that it could engage in trade with any other nation that also files a reservation.

Several other CITES proposals for species protection - including six shark species, red and pink coral, and polar bears - are being considered in Doha. However, discussions remain at an early stage. COP 15 will conclude on 25 March.

ICTSD reporting; "Japan leading charge against bluefin ban," ASSOCIATED PRESS, 17 March 2010; "U.S. Backs Proposed Trading Ban on Bluefin Tuna," THE NEW YORK TIMES, 3 March 2010; "U.S. backs international trade ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna," THE WASHINGTON POST, 4 March 2010; "A Move to Save the Bluefin Tuna," TIME, 4 March 2010.

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