Delegates at a United Nations conference on endangered species in Doha, Qatar, soundly defeated American-supported proposals on Thursday to ban international trade in bluefin tuna and to protect polar bears.
Atlantic and Mediterranean stocks of bluefin, a fish prized especially by Japanese sushi lovers for its fatty belly flesh, have been severely depleted by years of heavy commercial fishing, while polar bears are considered threatened by hunting and the loss of sea ice because of global warming. The United States tried unsuccessfully to persuade delegates to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites, to provide strong international protection for the two species.
“It wasn’t a very good day for conservation,” said Juan Carlos Vásquez, a spokesman for the United Nations organization. “It shows the governments are not ready to adopt trade bans as a way to protect species.”
Delegates voted down the proposal to protect bluefin by 68 to 20, with 30 abstentions. The polar bear measure failed by 62 to 48, with 11 abstentions.
The rejection of the bluefin proposal was a clear victory for the Japanese government, which had vowed to go all out to stop the measure or else exempt itself from complying with it. Japan, which consumes nearly 80 percent of the bluefin catch, argued that the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or Iccat, should be responsible for regulating the fishery, not the United Nations. European Union nations, whose fleets are most responsible for the overfishing of bluefin, abstained from voting in the second round after their own watered-down proposal was rejected.
American officials expressed disappointment in the vote, but said they would keep trying in various international forums to protect the tuna and the bears.
“The bluefin tuna is an iconic fish species,” said Tom Strickland, assistant secretary of the interior for fish and wildlife and parks. “The science is compelling, the statistics are dramatic. That species is in spectacular decline.”
He said that the United States had recently declared the polar bear population to be threatened by loss of its sea ice habitat to melting. The Interior Department, he said, had designated 200,000 acres of Arctic ice as critical habitat in need of protection.
“We believe the bear is under great pressure,” he said from Washington. “It should not be traded internationally.”
Canada, Greenland and several indigenous communities, which led the effort to defeat the proposal to protect the polar bear, contended that the bear population was healthy and that it could sustain limited hunting and trade in pelts and body parts.
While there is near-universal agreement that the bluefin stocks are in danger, Japan’s argument resonated with other fishing nations, which were uneasy about what would have been the first intrusion of the endangered species convention into a major commercial fishery.
But Iccat’s own record on managing the fish is widely seen as unsuccessful: the bluefin population has declined by roughly 80 percent since 1970. And while the organization, which has no effective enforcement mechanism, can set quotas, it has set the catch above the level that its own scientists say is safe to ensure the health of the species.
A senior Japanese official said that his country shared the international concern about bluefin stocks, but that the Atlantic fisheries agency was the proper body to regulate its trade, not the United Nations convention.
Masanori Miyahara, chief counselor of the Fisheries Agency of Japan, said after the vote that Japan would now be under pressure to abide by Iccat’s new, lower quotas for bluefin harvesting, according to The Associated Press. Iccat moved in November to reduce the bluefin quota to 13,500 tons from 22,000 tons for this year, and said that if stocks were not rebuilt by 2022 it would consider closing some areas.
“I feel more responsibility to work for the recovery of the species,” Mr. Miyahara said, The A.P. reported. “So it’s kind of a heavy decision for Japan, too.”
Thursday’s vote was the second time Japan had defeated a proposal to protect bluefin. A similar proposal by Sweden failed at the 1992 Cites meeting in Kyoto, Japan.
Mr. Vásquez said it was technically possible for member nations to revisit the votes before the conference ended next Thursday, but that there was little likelihood that either measure would be resurrected.
Attention at the Doha conference will now turn to proposals to protect sharks and elephants.
The United States, the Micronesian state of Palau and the European Union are among nations proposing that several species of sharks be listed under Appendix 2 of the convention, which would require that governments monitor trade in the species but would not entail an outright ban. But with Japan leading the opposition to any United Nations involvement in the regulation of marine species, and China, the largest consumer of shark fins, strongly opposed, the prospects of a deal appear remote.
The elephant talks will center on a proposal by Tanzania and Zambia to resume trade in elephant ivory, but Kenya and some other African nations argue that trade will bring only more poaching.