TOKYO—Japan, whose unique seafood-eating culture is coming under increasing criticism as fish stocks decline, is facing another challenge as an international wildlife-protection body prepares a ban on trading of bluefin tuna.
Alarmed by sharp declines in the population of the species from overfishing, member nations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species are likely to approve a proposal to ban import and export of bluefin tuna in the Atlantic at their meeting in Doha, Qatar, starting Saturday. A number of nations, including the U.S., support the proposal, making it likely it will win two-thirds of the votes needed to pass at the 175-member body, officials say.
Japan, which consumes 70% to 80% of the global catch of bluefin—a pricey breed prized for sushi and sashimi—and about a quarter of all tuna, has unsuccessfully fought the proposal, and Japanese government officials are now threatening to “opt out”—essentially defy the consensus of the international community—if it is approved in its current form.
“Japan would have no choice but to take a reservation if the Cites vote to include bluefin in Appendix 1,” Hisashi Endo, a negotiator from Japan’s Fisheries Agency, said, referring to the list of endangered species whose trading is prohibited.
Japan wouldn’t face any penalty for opting out—though it is likely to face criticism. The next step would be for countries seeking a ban to try to negotiate a compromise with Tokyo.
The proposed ban is the latest headache for Japan’s fisheries officials, who have faced increasing heat from environmentalists and other governments in recent years. Japan has been forced to curtail catches of other types of tuna, and is competing more and more with China and other increasingly wealthy Asian neighbors as their demand for seafood rises. Japan is also under pressure to stop whaling, a less-significant but long-lasting practice in the nation.
Japan says the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, a body made up of a smaller number of fishing nations, should manage bluefin resources. “We aren’t convinced bluefin tuna should be thrown in the same league as the tiger and the giant panda, whose populations number in thousands,” Mr. Endo said.
The new agreement could be weakened significantly if Japan, the primary player, stays out. Any nation that declines to adhere to the ban would continue to trade in the species as if the ban didn’t exist, providing it can find a partner also opting out. Japanese officials say other tuna-eating nations like South Korea and developing countries along the Atlantic and the Mediterranean will also likely disregard the ban.
The European Union has expressed support for the ban but proposed changes that would make it less strict. The EU includes bluefin-fishing nations like Italy and Spain.
Stocks of bluefin tuna in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean are estimated to have dropped to 15% to 30% of the levels four to five decades ago before large-scale international trading started, according to the Cites.
“Whatever has been tried so far hasn’t been successful,” said David Morgan, chief scientist at the Geneva secretariat of the Cites. “Something needs to change. Otherwise there will be no fish left.”