By Juliet Eilperin
Thursday, March 4, 2010; A03
The U.S. government announced Wednesday that it supports prohibiting international trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna, a move that could lead to the most sweeping trade restrictions ever imposed on the highly prized fish.
Sushi aficionados in Japan and elsewhere have consumed bluefin for decades, a demand that has caused its population to plummet. In a week and a half, representatives from 175 countries will convene in Doha, Qatar, to determine whether to restrict the trade of bluefin tuna -- valued for its rich, buttery taste -- and an array of other imperiled species under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Late last year, Monaco proposed listing Atlantic bluefin tuna under the treaty's Appendix I, which amounts to a total ban. The Obama administration did not immediately endorse the proposal, which sparked criticism from American marine scientists and ocean activists.
Tom Strickland, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, said in an interview that the administration wanted to see whether the international fishing body charged with overseeing the species could impose sufficient limits on its own and concluded that it could not.
"The regulatory mechanisms that have been relied upon have failed to do the job," said Strickland, who will lead the U.S. delegation to the CITES world conference March 13 to 25. "We are literally at a moment where if we don't get this right, we could see this very, very special species really at risk for survival."
Bluefin tuna has enjoyed iconic status in Western society for centuries. Romans depicted it in their currency; Salvador Dali did the same in his paintings. The warmblooded fish can swim as fast as a sports car in the frigid waters off Newfoundland as well as in the Gulf of Mexico's warmer climes.
Still, Strickland said that when it comes to the vote in Doha, "who knows where it will all land." The fish is so valuable that a single bluefin sold for a record $173,600 at Tokyo's Tsukiji market in 2001.
Japan, the world's largest bluefin consumer, opposes the trade restrictions, while the European Union will decide within a week whether it will back the listing or abstain. The proposal needs a two-thirds majority to pass.
The Obama administration's decision to back Monaco's proposal "could be a real game changer for the species," said Susan Lieberman, director of international policy at the Pew Environment Group. "Other governments can either join Monaco and the United States in boldly supporting the conservation of bluefin tuna, sharks and other marine species, or they can yield to commercial fishing interests that focus more on short-term profits than a sustainable future for both fish and local fishing communities."
Over the past half-century, the adult population of eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna has declined 74 percent, much of it in the past decade. In the western Atlantic, the population has dropped 82 percent in 40 years. The declines came even as bluefin fishing was being governed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, which sets catch quotas for the fish and is supposed to curtail illegal fishing.
The CITES secretariat has determined a total trade ban on bluefin tuna is warranted, based on current scientific data.