Seafood-loving Japan — having faced years of international pressure to stop whaling — finds itself with a potentially bigger fight over a highly prized type of tuna that conservation groups say is being fished to extinction.
A proposal to ban the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna — vaunted for its succulent red and pink meat — could slash supplies and drive up prices in Japan, the world’s biggest consumer and importer of the fish.
Talk of banning imports of the species has made some Japanese feel their very way of life is under attack. The fish is often served as sushi, the iconic Japanese dish.
“Any ban is going to have a big impact culturally and economically,” said Masaru Nakazawa, a 63-year-old wholesaler at Tokyo’s sprawling Tsukiji fish market.
But environmentalists say the Atlantic bluefin is a vanishing species and insist a ban on its export by the world body that governs wildlife trade is the last chance to save it in the face of skyrocketing global demand and a failure by governments to abide by existing quotas.
Bluefin tuna, of which the Atlantic and Pacific are the most common species, is served in upscale sushi restaurants worldwide — but any export ban would hit Japan hardest.
Japan buys nearly 80 percent of the annual Atlantic bluefin catch. Top-grade sushi with fatty bluefin — called “o-toro” here — can go for as much as 2,000 yen ($20) a piece in high-end Tokyo restaurants.
Atlantic bluefin accounted for about half the 47,400 tons (43,000 metric tons) of bluefin tuna that Japan consumed in 2008, the last year for which statistics were available. The other half came mostly from the Pacific.
Member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, will consider the proposed ban at a meeting in Qatar in March. Monaco, which proposed the measure, said the bluefin species numbers have fallen by nearly 75 percent since 1957 with most of the declines occurring in the past decade and that current measures are not enough to ensure it is fished sustainably.
If the proposal is approved, Atlantic bluefin would be listed in Appendix 1 of the convention, which would allow only domestic consumption within countries of the European Union. Activists say that would lower the catch substantially because shipments to Japan would be prohibited.
A ban would also likely raise prices for bluefin in the U.S. But the biggest impact would be consumer awareness: People would be prompted to avoid ordering bluefin, said Trevor Corson, the New York-based author of “The Story of Sushi.”
“If (Atlantic) bluefin tuna becomes an endangered species, that’s big news. That will wake a lot of people up,” Corson said.
In Europe, the market impact of a ban may be limited because bluefin sushi is still rather rare, served at only at the most exclusive restaurants. Greenpeace has successfully pressured some restaurants in Europe not to serve the fish.
The listing is the toughest action possible and activists expect a fierce fight over the proposed ban, led by Japan and southern European nations that catch the bulk of Atlantic bluefin including Turkey, Spain, Greece, Italy and Malta, where thousands of jobs depend on catching and shipping the fish to Japan.
Francois Simard, a fisheries expert, predicts that Japan could support the species being listed on Annex II, which would tighten the international trade but not ban it.
“The Japanese are quite strong on this and many countries are with them,” he said.
Some in Japan also worry that a ban could open the door for bans on trade in other tuna species.
“This could set a dangerous precedent. The list could grow to include the yellowfin and bigeye tuna, too,” said Hisao Masuko of the Japan Tuna Fisheries Cooperative Association. “If nothing is done, we won’t have any tuna at Tsukiji fish market.”
The International Commission on the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna already sets quotas on the annual catch and reduced the 2010 limit to 14,900 tons (13,500 metric tons) down from 24,250 tons (22,000 metric tons) in 2009 and 31,400 tons (28,500 metric tons) in 2008. But environmentalists say the quotas are widely ignored, and only a ban on trade will allow tuna stocks to recover.
Sergi Tudela, who heads the fisheries program for WWF Mediterranean Program, said the main problem is a “lack of political will” to fight illegal fishing. Japan also blames European nations for failing to properly implement conservation measures.
Mediterranean countries, including Spain and Turkey, say they are working hard to enforce the quotas, and should be given more time to work.
Pedro Maza, president of the Andalucian fishing federation, which represents the traditional rod-caught tuna fishing fleet of southern Spain, acknowledges there is a problem but opposes cuts or bans. He says strict controls are not enforced on big industrial fleets and fish farms.
Japan needs to tread carefully, because it already faces intense international criticism for whaling. It kills 1,200 whales each year under a scientific program allowed by the International Whaling Commission despite a moratorium on commercial whaling. Whale meat is sold in Japanese fish shops and restaurants, but it is not widely eaten.
Hideki Moronuki, section chief of the ecosystems conservation office Japan’s Fisheries Agency, said at the CITES meeting Japan planned to be “as cool as possible in order to secure the sustainable use of marine living resources.” He said Japan would avoid bringing up the controversial issue of whaling.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society sends ships to Antarctica each season to try to stop the hunt. Last week, a Japanese whaler collided with a small, anti-whaling boat. No one was seriously injured, but the Sea Shepherd ship had to be abandoned and sunk.
For fishermen at the Tsukiji market, the debate over whaling and tuna sounds at times more like a clash of cultures than a fight to save an endangered species.
The Japanese diet depends heavily on seafood, so as long as tuna and whales are harvested responsibly, people should be free to hunt and eat what they want, they say.
“Americans and Europeans eat meat. They’re kind of imposing their ways on us,” said Yoshiyuki Hoshiba, a fish wholesaler as he sliced a slab of red tuna with a sword-like knife. “Are cows and sheep less intelligent than whales?”