Japan Sets Tone for “Worst Wildlife Trade Meeting Ever”

I just got back from the 15th Conference of the Parties (“CoP”) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (“CITES” or “the Convention”), which was held in Doha, Qatar from March 13 to 25.  CITES is the international body charged with protecting wildlife against overexploitation and ensuring that international trade does not threaten the survival of species.  I was at the conference fighting for greater protections for polar bears (you can find my previous blogs on the polar bear fight here, here, here, and here) and witnessed firsthand Japan’s tactics that set the tone for a conference that utterly failed marine species.  Witnessing the setbacks, the people I was working with on behalf of species conservation started referring to the meeting as the “worst CoP ever.”

The tone was set on the fifth day of the conference when the most contentious issue for marine species came up – the proposal from Monaco to include Northern Bluefin Tuna in CITES Appendix I (the appendix that offers the most protections for a species by banning the international trade in that species).  Bluefin tuna are in a dire situation; the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean stock is near complete collapse and the Western Atlantic stock has declined by over 80 percent since 1970.  The collapse of these stocks is due to rampant overharvest, with the Japanese sushi and sashimi market consuming approximately 75 percent of the global catch – bluefin tuna is the most valuable fish in the sea, with a single fish fetching $10,000 on the market.

Despite the species' predicament, Japan led the charge to keep CITES from regulating trade in bluefin tuna, insisting instead that the regional fishery body in charge of the tuna should continue its failed management of the species.  Japan’s game plan at CITES ran the gamut of persuasive techniques, some less savory than others.  First, we heard that the Japanese delegation hosted an invite-only reception at the Japanese embassy for delegates that were likely to vote no on the proposal, where it served bluefin tuna sushi.  Then we witnessed Japan’s point of order before the bluefin-tuna vote that was nothing more than coaching delegates how to vote (i.e., “So, if Japan wants to vote No on the proposal it should push button 3”).  Finally, after a bit of procedural chaos, Japan and its allies were able to kill debate entirely and move for an immediate vote, ensuring that a compromise proposal offered by the European Union would not be voted on.  With the opposition lined up, Monaco’s proposal to list bluefin tuna was handily defeated.  Not content with merely carrying the vote, Japan and its allies broke into applause on the floor of the committee.  It was all in poor taste; regardless of the merits of each side’s position, Japan’s conduct demonstrated an utter lack of respect for conservationists and other proponents of the proposal.  You can read more about Japan’s efforts at CITES here.

Unfortunately, Japan’s tactics do not end with CITES.  A great article detailing Japan’s poor record of marine conservation can be found in the online version of onearth magazine.  The article identifies what may be Japan’s next big push – ending the complete ban on commercial whaling put in place by the International Whaling Commission (“IWC”).  If Japan’s conduct at the IWC and CITES is instructive on how it will operate after a lifting of the whaling ban, it can only be bad news for whales and those who work to protect them.