Japan will not comply if a ban is imposed on international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna, prized by Japanese for sushi, a senior official said after the United States threw its support behind the move ahead of a crucial vote.
"If worse comes to worst, Japan will inevitably have to lodge its reservations," Vice Fishery Minister Masahiko Yamada told a news conference Thursday.
His comments came a day after the United States threw its support behind the ban on the international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna, which conservationists say risks extinction if current catch rates continue.
At a March 13-25 meeting in Qatar, 175 member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, will vote on a proposal by Monaco to list the species under Appendix 1 of the convention. If the measure wins support from two-thirds of member nations, trade of the fish would be banned.
Environmentalists say that would significantly reduce the catch because 80 percent of all Atlantic bluefin ends up in Japan, where it is a key ingredient in sashimi and sushi. Fatty bluefin — called "o-toro" here — can go for as much as 2,000 yen ($22) a piece in high-end Tokyo restaurants.
But Japan may register a reservation on the ban, which in practical terms means it could engage in trade with any other nation that also files a reservation.
The impact of such a move remains unclear because it depends on how many other nations might also register reservations. But activists say it could seriously undermine any ban.
"If major fishing nations show the same position as the Japanese government, it will ruin the concept of the CITES treaty," said Wakao Hanaoka, an ocean campaigner with Greenpeace in Tokyo.
Bluefin tuna stocks in the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean have dropped by 60 percent between 1997 and 2007, a result of surging demand as well as illegal and underreported catches.
The upcoming CITES vote is starting to garner more attention in Japan, with TV programs saying a ban would make it much harder for Japanese to obtain the succulent red and pink tuna meat. Other tuna species, including the Pacific bluefin, bigeye and yellowfin, would not be affected by the ban.
Yamada said Japan is committed to protecting bluefin species. Tokyo believes that catch quotas, which have already been cut 40 percent this year to 14,900 tons (13,500 metric tons) by another body, the International Commission on the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, should be sufficient.
But environmentalists say the quotas are widely ignored and are too high anyway.
The European Commission has proposed that EU governments commit to the ban, although there still appears to be some division. Greece, Malta, Spain and Italy — which have strong fisherman lobbies — have resisted steps to curtail the hunt for bluefin, but recently France signaled it would support a trade ban if its implementation were delayed.
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