Image: Atlantic bluefin tuna at Tokyo restaurant
Yuriko Nakao  /  Reuters
Atlantic bluefin tuna is spread atop a rice bowl at a restaurant in Tokyo. At the U.N. talks this week on wildlife conservation, Japan and 67 other countries blocked a proposal to ban trade of the species.
updated 3/25/2010 12:29:09 PM ET 2010-03-25T16:29:09

The Japanese seemed to be everywhere at the U.N. wildlife trade meeting.

Dozens of government officials worked the floor the past two weeks ahead of key votes, offering guidance to confused but supportive delegates. They held a reception for select representatives at their embassy in Qatar, offering up Atlantic bluefin tuna sushi — a typical food served at Japanese formal occasions — the night before the vote on the export ban of the overfished species.

Their aggressive and relentless lobbying campaign appeared to pay dividends. In fact, Japan took the lead in ensuring that trade interests trumped wildlife at a U.N. conference at which proposals to protect polar bears, bluefin tuna, coral and sharks all fell flat.

Japan came out the big winner at the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, which wraps up Thursday, successfully defeating the proposed bluefin ban, voting down efforts to regulate the coral trade and joining other Asian nations to prevent several shark species used in the fin trade from gaining protection.

For some activists, the Japanese tactics were proof that CITES has been transformed from a clubby, conservation body to one driven by big money, trade and economics. The meeting is becoming more like U.N. climate change meetings, they said, where politics at times trumps science and a deals are struck by world leaders behind closed doors.

"Japan clearly mobilized massive efforts to keep fisheries out of CITES," said Mark W. Roberts, senior counsel and policy adviser for the watchdog group Environmental Investigation Agency.

It's not that the Japanese were the only ones to stake out a position, but they were more organized and persistent, delegates said, than the divided European Union and the United States, which didn't announce its position on the tuna ban until late in the game.

Months in the making
Japan launched its global campaign months ago, repeatedly meeting with governments big and small. And when it came to the conference in Qatar, they sent a 30-strong delegation that was stacked with fisheries people who have years of experience working the hallways at CITES.

The Japanese insist they were just one of many delegations searching for votes. But they were also under intense pressure at home to defeat the proposed ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna, given it could devastate the country's fisheries industry since it imports 80 percent of the fish.

Hisashi Endo, the director of the Ecosystem and Conservation Office in the Fisheries Agency of Japan, said delegates stuck to the facts. They argued that regional fisheries bodies were better suited to regulate marine species and that the CITES ban was unfair. They also argued that the ban proposed by Monaco would penalize the Japanese sushi industry, while allowing American and European fisheries to keep catching Atlantic bluefin.

"We are not pressuring anyone," Endo said. "We are talking to many countries and expressing our opinion and seeking their understanding."

But some delegates accused Japan of using tactics that went beyond diplomacy and violated the spirit of CITES.

Kenya, which fought the Japanese over tuna and a proposed sale of Zambian and Tanzanian ivory stocks, accused Tokyo of pressuring delegates to support its positions and paying fisheries officials from unnamed African countries to attend the conference — something the Japanese repeatedly denied.

"The way we have seen this conference operate, there is a lot of influence that is quite unnecessary," said Patrick Omondi, a member of Kenya's delegation. "That is not very good for species that are affected by trade."

Javier Rosero, a member of the Ecuadorean delegation that supported most of the marine listings, acknowledged the Japanese played hardball, but argued the United States and others could learn a thing or two from them.

He said the Americans were often too slow to react and were not forceful enough when they did. And in meetings with Ecuadorean officials, Rosero said the Americans didn't bring anything to offer to the table.

"I have been talking to Japan and they say, 'What do you need? What kind of project are you able to do?'" Rosero said. "The Japanese come to make business and the States come to explain."

Others, however, dismissed talk of Japan's influence as overstated. The Egyptians said it was nonsense, as did the Zambians. Even the Libyans, who supported Japan on the coral and tuna proposals, denied there was any quid pro quo.

"We were with Japan on tuna but not the sharks," said Hussin Ali Zarough, who was among the most vocal opponents of the tuna ban and called for the crucial vote. "That shows Libyan independence."

Masanori Miyahara, chief counselor of the Fisheries Agency of Japan, acknowledged the government has funds that were aimed at helping developing countries build their fishing capacity. He said the funds were used by nations to attend CITES and other fisheries conferences — though he did not say how much or which countries benefited from the funds.

"Participation is very important for them to learn what is going on internationally," Miyahara said. "They use the money for tuna regional fisheries management meeting and other meetings. CITES is one of them."

But he denied his government "was buying votes" with such funding or its offers of bluefin tuna at its reception.

"We wanted to show what it is," Miyahara said of the tuna sushi served at the reception. "You can't buy the vote by just serving bluefin tuna. That's a silly idea."

Roberts said Japan's tactics are reminiscent of the way it operates at the International Whaling Commission, where heavy lobbying and allegations of vote-buying are common. He said activists brought non-whaling governments into the body to win a moratorium on commercial whaling and Japan followed suit, leading to political gridlock with little room for scientific debate.

"That is what happened here," he said. "The science on the bluefin tuna — if there was no economic factor — would have been a slam dunk. But given that there is millions, if not billions of dollars at stake, it became a political decision."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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