By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
Large modern tuna boats have revolutionised the industry
EU nations have decided to support a ban on international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna until stocks recover.
The bloc has agreed to back a motion for a ban during next week's meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
The US has already given its support, but Japan - where most bluefin is eaten - may opt out of CITES controls.
The EU is backing exemptions for traditional fishers, and deferring the ban for a year.
Malta was reportedly the only EU member to vote against supporting the ban proposal, which was originally lodged by Monaco last year.
Conservation groups were generally pleased.
"With the two largest holders of bluefin tuna fishing quota on either side of the Atlantic - the US and EU - now supporting the trade ban, other countries should follow suit," said Sergi Tudela, head of WWF's Mediterranean fisheries campaign.
"The EU must now push for widespread support of this proposal during the CITES meeting."
UK Marine and Natural Environment Minister Huw Irranca-Davies also welcomed the move.
"We have long argued that this threatened species should be given the protection it urgently needs," he said.
Change of heart
Last year, scientists reporting to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat) - the organisation responsible for managing the fishery - said the bluefin's decline had been so stark that a trade ban was merited.
They calculated that the stock is now at about 15% of the level it was in the era before industrial fishing began.
Iccat's member states, however - which include EU nations with tuna fleets such as Spain, France and Italy - decided to continue fishing, but with lowered quotas.
Initially, those three countries along with Cyprus and Greece had lobbied against a CITES ban, but have now changed their positions.
Compensation packages, as yet unpublicised, have been offered to operators of the EU tuna fleet, which is now dominated by modern, industrial boats.
Conservationists are less happy with three elements of the EU proposition:
- Implementation would be delayed until 2011 rather than taking effect immediately
- If Iccat implements stronger action at its meeting next year, CITES governments could revisit the issue and choose to downgrade protection from a full ban to a system of monitoring and regulation - in CITES jargon, moving from Appendix 1 to Appendix 2 listing
- The EU wants exemptions for fishers using traditional methods, without defining what they are.
Dodging the issue
EU support alone will not secure approval for the ban within CITES, where motions need a two-thirds majority to pass.
At the last meeting, in 2007, Japan and other nations opposed to using CITES to regulate commercial fish species blocked measures aimed at safeguarding sharks.
Threatened organisms listed on three appendices depending on level of risk
Appendix 1 - all international trade banned
Appendix 2 - international trade monitored and regulated
Appendix 3 - trade bans by individual governments, others asked to assist
"Uplisting" - moving organism to a more protective appendix; "downlisting" - the reverse
Conferences of the Parties (COPs) held every three years
CITES administered by UN Environment Programme (Unep)
Japan is not opposed to bluefin conservation, but believes such matters should be regulated by regional fisheries bodies such as Iccat.
Japanese officials have blamed European governments for the bluefin's decline, arguing that governments have allocated unfeasibly large quotas to their fleets and turned a blind eye to illegal fishing.
Most bluefin is sold to Japan for use in sushi and sashimi restaurants.
Under a CITES ban, EU member states would not be allowed to export bluefin caught in their waters, and would not be able to fish in international waters.
CITES rules allow any country to lodge a "reservation" against measures it does not like, thereby opting out. Japan has indicated it may take this option if the meeting endorses a trade ban on bluefin
Conservationists and some EU states are concerned that other Iccat countries around the Mediterranean - the principal fishing ground - could also opt out of a CITES ban.
That would allow those countries to continue fishing and exporting the tuna to Japan.
The CITES meeting, in Qatar, opens this weekend.