Why a Proposed Ban on Bluefin Tuna Fishing Failed

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Issei Kato / Reuters

A chef serves sushi of high-quality fatty Atlantic bluefin tuna in Tokyo

For a moment, it seemed like the age of the ubiquitous tuna roll were about to end. When both the U.S. and the European Union announced earlier this month that they would support adding the Atlantic bluefin tuna to the United Nation's list of endangered species, it looked as if a majority of countries might agree to prohibit international trade of the fish. But at Thursday's meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Doha, Qatar, member states voted 72 to 43 against such a ban.

Representatives of the fishing industry around the world welcomed the news, but for environmentalists, the decision was a blow. "We're totally in shock," says Gemma Parkes, spokeswoman for the World Wildlife Federation. "And obviously very disappointed. This is a real setback for the survival of the bluefin."

Thanks to the world's insatiable taste for sushi, breeding stocks of bluefin tuna have declined 80% over the past 50 years, with the steepest drop occurring in the last decade. And with tuna caught in the Mediterranean (where Atlantic bluefin go to spawn) wholesaling for $50 per kilo (one 500-plus-lb. monster recently fetched $175,000) in Tokyo, the fishing industry has shown its own ravenous appetite for the fish.

When the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), an inter-governmental regulatory body that oversees the world's annual tuna catch, failed last year to follow the recommendations of its own scientists and drastically reduce quotas for the fish, the tiny principality of Monaco drafted a proposal to include the fish on CITES Appendix 1. The appendix, which bans trade in endangered species, has — with the exception of certain whales and dolphins — historically excluded marine life, and Japan, which consumes about 80% of the 60,000 tons of bluefin caught each year, promised to vote against any ban. But momentum in favor of Monaco's proposal appeared to be growing, especially when the Obama Administration lent its support on March 3, followed a week later by the European Parliament and Norway, another major fishing country.

At Thursday's meeting in Doha, though, delegates from Libya quickly put a stop to that momentum. "Let's just say they were very impassioned," says Glenn Sant, global marine program leader for Traffic, a U.K.-based organization that monitors international trade in wildlife. "We had expected the proposal to go to a working group for extended debate, but Libya called for a vote immediately."

Voting was conducted by secret ballot, but several other nations spoke against the ban, including Venezuela, Korea, Morocco and Turkey. Like Libya, the latter nation has been accused by environmental groups like Greenpeace of illegal fishing and routinely ignoring ICCAT quotas. "There's a reason why this initiative was so crucial," says Sant. "ICCAT has made a lot of promises about improving its scientific management of the fishery and better enforcing its own regulations, but they really haven't come through, and the tuna population continues to be extremely low."

Representatives of the fishing industry say that ICCAT, and not CITES, is still the proper mechanism for regulating tuna. "It's true that for some years, ICCAT didn't work well because member states didn't comply with its rules," says Javier Garat, secretary general of the Madrid-based Spanish Fishing Confederation. "But it's gotten stricter, and its efforts are bearing fruit."

Garat points out that had the CITES measure passed, Japan would have taken a reservation, opting out of the ban. Other countries would still be prohibited from trading with Japan, but with those $50-per-kilo ticket prices, less scrupulous nations might have been enticed into breaking the agreement. "It would have only increased the black market, and the countries that would have been most hurt by it would be the ones following the law — which is to say the European Union," Garat adds.

With the start of the Atlantic bluefin spawning season just two weeks away, Mediterranean tuna fishermen — and sushi lovers — have been granted a reprieve. One that will last, however, only as long as the bluefin does.