The United States has set the stage for a showdown with Japan by calling for a ban on the international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna, hoping to save the species prized for sushi.
The United States said Wednesday it would ask a March 13-25 meeting in Qatar to declare the commercial trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna a threat to the species' survival, an issue that has split the European Union.
"The United States continues to have serious concerns about the long-term viability" of eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna, said Tom Strickland, the assistant secretary of the interior for fish and wildlife.
"The US government is committed to working with our many international partners to continue to rebuild Atlantic bluefin tuna (stocks) and ensure sustained conservation and management of the species into the future," he said in a statement.
A ban on the tuna trade would require support by two-thirds of the roughly 175 nations that make up the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which is meeting in Doha.
"The US administration's decision is a turning point," said Susan Lieberman, director of international policy at the Pew Environment Group. "We are now much more optimistic."
Japan, which consumes three-quarters of the global bluefin tuna catch, says an international trade ban is too drastic and has left open the option of defying the restrictions if they are approved.
The bluefin is the largest in the tuna family and is highly prized for sushi and sashimi. Stocks have fallen drastically, declining in the Western Atlantic by more than 80 percent from 1970 to 2007.
A 232.6-kilogramme (512-pound) bluefin fetched a near-record 16.28 million yen (176,000 dollars) at the first auction of this year at Tokyo's iconic Tsukiji fish market.
The US decision came the same day that delegates were meeting in Florida to take up another controversial oceans issue -- whaling.
The negotiators were considering a compromise that would let Japan openly hunt whales but aim to reduce the catch, which infuriates whale-loving Australia.
"Some say that Japan's tough position on whaling is to deflect the debate on tuna, where there is much more at stake for Japan," Hocevar said.
Any international trading ban would not stop US fishermen from catching tuna in US waters for domestic consumption. Strickland said scientific guidelines were in place to prevent overfishing in the United States.
A ban would also not affect other common forms of tuna such as albacore, skipjack and yellowfin or Pacific bluefin tuna, whose stocks are in decline but are administered separately.
Last month, eight Pacific nations responsible for a quarter of the world's tuna catch said they planned to start an OPEC-like cartel to conserve stocks and also boost their financial returns.
"You're talking about a four-billion-dollar industry that doesn't go to the benefit of these island nations," Faleomavaega said.
"The problem here is that most of the fishing is done by foreign countries or foreign companies and they get a pittance as far as the results."
Source: AFP Global Edition