Food/Drink

UN agency favors ban on bluefin tuna exports

by Frank Jordans
Friday Feb 5, 2010
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The world should ban the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna, a U.N. panel declared Friday, backing a proposal that is fiercely opposed by Japan, which prizes the fish as a key ingredient in sushi.

Atlantic bluefin populations have declined over 80 percent since the 19th century, so establishing special protections is justified by science, said CITES, the U.N. group that oversees the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

"We are recommending that the parties accept the proposal," CITES scientific chief David Morgan told reporters in Geneva.

The tiny European principality of Monaco has lobbied the 175 nations that are members of CITES to agree on a global ban on Atlantic bluefin exports at a meeting in Qatar’s capital of Doha from March 13-25. The plan is one of 42 conservation proposals CITES members will consider, along with similar trade bans on products from polar bears, some sharks and other species.

The meeting will also decide whether to restrict or ease the ban on trade in elephant ivory, another hotly contested issue.

But the dispute over tuna - which pits most northern European countries against Japan and several Mediterranean fishing nations - will likely command the biggest attention because it threatens to wipe the iconic fish off the sushi menu.

Turkey, Spain, Greece, Italy and Malta have thousands of jobs that depend on catching and shipping the fish to Japan.

Atlantic bluefin, which can reach 10 feet (3 meters) long and weigh over 1,430 pounds (650 kilograms), fetch prices reaching 2,000 yen ($20) a slice in high-end Tokyo restaurants. Japan buys 80 percent of the world catch, with Europe and the United States sharing the rest.

The International Commission on the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, which groups tuna-fishing nations, already sets quotas on the annual bluefin catch. It has reduced this year’s limit to 14,900 tons (13,500 metric tons), down nearly 40 percent from 2009.

Environmentalists, however, say the quotas are widely ignored and are too high anyway.

An export ban on Atlantic bluefin also wouldn’t affect the Pacific bluefin species - even though that is similarly endangered - because there has been no proposal to limit its catch, said Morgan.

The bluefin ban also would not affect sales of yellowfin, skipjack, or tongol tuna, which are commonly found in cans and deli sandwiches. In Europe, bluefin sushi is still rather rare, served only at the most exclusive restaurants.

Atlantic bluefin "is a particular product from a very sought-after species (sold) in relatively small quantities compared with tuna generally," Morgan stressed.

He said the CITES office in Geneva wasn’t recommending a similar ban on polar bear products, as proposed by the United States but opposed by Canadian indigenous communities.

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