There was no mistaking the pride and delight of Japanese officials after their victory in blocking a ban on trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna. “It’s a result even better than we imagined,” said Hirotaka Akamatsu, agriculture and fisheries minister.
Such pleasure was understandable. Japanese multilateral diplomatic triumphs are rare. And Tokyo had feared it would end up isolated in March at the Doha gathering of Cites, the convention that governs trade in endangered species.
Instead, after savvy backroom dealing and a lobbying drive that included an embassy reception where delegates were plied with succulent servings of Atlantic bluefin sushi, the proposed ban was easily defeated.
But should Tokyo really be pleased with this victory?
In defeating a trade ban intended to save the Atlantic bluefin tuna from commercial extinction, critics say Japan is perpetuating the over-exploitation of our oceans.
Such accusations are fuelled by the fact that victory came with support from China – quickly repaid when Tokyo helped block bans on trade in threatened species of shark, whose fins are a Chinese delicacy.
Mr Akamatsu and his colleagues should be well aware of the cost to Japan’s international image, especially since their nation is already under pressure over other aspects of its exploitation of marine resources.
Australia has threatened to take Japan to the International Court of Justice over its annual Antarctic whale hunt and Hollywood in March awarded an Oscar to The Cove, a documentary about Japanese dolphin slaughter.
For many in Japan, such criticism smacks of a hypocritical imposition of western values on an island nation that has always drawn sustenance from the sea. Australia, for example, condemns whale hunting, but cheerfully culls kangaroos. Most Europeans see nothing wrong with subjecting intelligent and sociable pigs to short lives of industrial squalor ending in summary transformation into bacon.
At least bluefin tuna do not inspire the same kind of affection as whales and dolphins, although the fish are sleek marvels dubbed the “Porsches of the Seas”.
But experts estimate that stocks of bluefin tuna have fallen to just 15 per cent of historic levels. And Japan’s love of them served raw as sushi or sashimi means it must bear much of the blame for this decline.
Japan consumes an estimated 80 per cent of the bluefin harvested from the Mediterranean and Japanese trading houses such as Mitsubishi Corp play a leading role in a high-tech industry in which fish are caught, fattened up in sea ranches and stored in super-cold refrigerators for consumption all year round.
While Japanese officials and traders believe that estimates of illegal fishing are exaggerated and the threat to stocks is overstated, they accept that the current exploitation is unsustainable.
Yet Tokyo insists a Cites ban is the wrong way to help the bluefin because it would be hard to remove later and would set a precedent that might threaten trade in other fish. It wants to strengthen the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) instead.
People involved in Japan’s tuna trade bristle at the double standards of European nations, which helped sink a Tokyo-supported call for lower ICCAT catch limits, then campaigned for a Cites ban that would still have allowed trade between EU nations.
This Japanese faith in ICCAT is open to question, however. The commission is widely mocked as the “International Conspiracy to Catch All the Tuna”. An independent review tartly reported last year that its fisheries management was “widely regarded as an international disgrace”.
There is also something that rings a little hollow about Japan’s defence of its appetite for tuna as a cultural preference: year-round consumption of the fish is a modern habit.
Masayuki Komatsu, a former researcher at Japan’s Fisheries Agency, said his compatriots should return to a more traditional approach of eating different fish when they are in season and abundant. “That is the true dietary culture of Japanese people,” said Professor Komatsu. Still, the battle at Cites might end up benefiting the bluefin.
Media coverage has raised public awareness of the threat to the fish. Mr Akamatsu called the victory the “birth of a responsibility” and said the onus was on Tokyo to show leadership in making ICCAT work and in strengthening its marine resource management.
If Japan can follow through on such pledges, that would truly be a tuna triumph to be proud of.
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