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US seeks Atlantic bluefin tuna ban in challenge to Japan

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) March 3, 2010
The United States called Wednesday for a ban on the international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna to save the species from extinction, challenging Japan ahead of a major global meeting.

With demand for sushi and sashimi driving the world's tuna stocks to dangerously low levels, the United States said it would ask a meeting in Qatar to declare the commercial trade in tuna a threat to the survival of the species.

"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.

Some 175 nations will consider the ban at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) from March 13 to 25 in the Qatari capital 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.

A ban on the global trade of bluefin tuna would require a two-thirds vote by the CITES conference. It would not affect Pacific bluefin tuna, whose stocks are also in decline but are administered separately, or other varieties of tuna consumed in many Western countries.

European nations are divided. Monaco has spearheaded the drive for a ban, which enjoys strong support from Britain and Germany.

But Spain, Greece and Malta -- which all have significant tuna industries -- are opposed. France has called for a ban but said it should only come into force after 18 months.

Other countries believed to be opposed to the ban include Canada and China.

"US support could make a huge difference with the EU in particular," said John Hocevar, the oceans campaign director at Greenpeace USA.

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.

Sergi Tudela of the WWF environmental group noted that the United States had a vested interest in tuna fishing.

"If the US can see the bigger picture and back the international trade ban proposal for the long-term survival of a species and a fishery, all countries can and should do so," he said.

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