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Blue Day for Bluefin

• March 19, 2010 • 10:34 AM

U.N. body comes down heavily against ban on fishing for iconic bluefin tuna.

Carl Safina, president and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, a conservation organization based on New York’s Long Island, is dismayed at the failure of the latest international efforts to rein in the overfishing of threatened bluefin tuna.

“I’m very disappointed, as a former tuna fisherman and as a conservationist, at the inability of countries to cooperate and make decisions in the interests of everyone,” Safina said.

His comments followed the overwhelming rejection of a proposed ban on the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna during Thursday’s meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar. (Miller-McCune touched on CITES work earlier this month in a discussion of the efficacy of pocket seafood guides for diners.)

CITES staffers put a positive spin on the vote, headlining a press report “Governments not ready for trade ban on bluefin tuna,” suggesting that at some point they will be.

Safina, a longtime champion of the vulnerable bluefin, first proposed banning exports 20 years ago. He complained that Japan, largely through its economic influence on other countries, was undermining the ability of CITES, an arm of the United Nations, to function properly.

He said Japan used the same tactics to undermine the International Whaling Commission and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, established in 1969 to help safeguard about 30 species of tuna and other large fish. The Japanese, for their part, seem to share the idea that efforts to protect the bluefin have not ended. The head of Japan’s fishing agency said the country would be under pressure to adhere to ICCAT’s reduced catch, while Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was quoted by BusinessWeek telling his nation, “It’s good that tuna prices won’t rise for now, but the situation is still unpredictable. We must remain cautious.”

Japan, where a single tuna can fetch well into six figures, imports an estimated 80 percent of Atlantic bluefin, which is highly prized among sushi and sashimi lovers.

At the meeting, Japan acknowledged fish stocks were in trouble but was able to rally a significant majority of member countries against the proposed restrictions by arguing that trade regulation is a matter for ICCAT, not CITES.

However, Safina sees no reason to trust ICCAT, which, he says, has consistently bent to the will of interested parties and done the wrong thing every year for the past 40 years.

The tiny Mediterranean principality of Monaco led efforts to ban bluefin exports but only the United Sates, Norway and Kenya offered direct support; siding with Japan were a host of nations from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, many worried about the negative impact a ban might have on their domestic fishing industries. The final vote was 20-68, with 30 abstentions. As CITES itself reported, after Iceland called for a secret ballot, the vote came “in the middle of much confusion about the voting procedures and mixed feelings of satisfaction and frustration from participants.”

Safina said the only recourse now was to keep pressing for bluefin protection through an export ban: He said that will become inevitable “but only when things are at their worst.”

Also at the CITES meeting, a U.S. proposal to ban the international sale of polar bear skins and body parts was voted down 48-62, with 11 abstentions, with economic considerations again taking precedence over conservation ideals.

The double blow led Safina to post a terse note on Facebook: “Bluefin tuna: proposal to ban trade is rejected. The right thing never happens for the bluefin tuna. Polar bears also screwed.”

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Frank Nelson
Frank Nelson has written for newspapers and magazines in England (his original home), New Zealand (his adopted home), Australia (a temporary home) and the United States (his current home). The author of two lighthearted travel books, All You Need is Luck and A Little More Luck, he is now a freelance writer based in Santa Barbara, Calif.

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