Proposed Bluefin Tuna Ban Defeated, Democracy In Action?

Japanese fish dealers inspecting Bluefin Tuna in Tokyo, Japan.

Photo credit: Koji Sasahara/AP

Recently, a US-backed proposal to ban the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna was “resoundingly defeated” by the United Nations at the latest  Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Doha, Qatar. The vote was 60 to 20 against, with 30 ironic European abstentions. The principal opponent was Japan, a nation that consumes 3/41 of the world-wide bluefin tuna catch, and 1/4 of all tuna in general.

From the Daily Yomiuri (via Japan Probe):

While early projections pointed to the easy passage of a proposal to ban the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna–a result that would have stung Japan as the main importer of the prized fish–some shrewd behind-the-scenes maneuvering set the stage for the proposal’s demise.

The beginning of the end for the proposal led by Monaco and the European Union was triggered by an outburst from the Libyan delegate at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.

At a committee meeting Thursday in the Qatari capital, the Libyan delegate shouted his objection to the U.S.-backed proposal, saying it was “part of a conspiracy of developed countries.” His comment was a direct appeal to anti-West sentiment among developing countries.

Starting to sound familiar yet?

The Libyan representative then called for the discussion to be wound up and an immediate vote held. The proposal to ban bluefin trade was then rejected.

However, Japan can take some credit for nudging Libya along on this matter.

Masanori Miyahara, chief counselor of the Fisheries Agency, secretly visited Libya to solicit the North African country’s support in opposing the bluefin tuna export ban at the CITES conference.

Though Libya initially had little more than a passing interest in the issue, Japan managed to persuade it to support Japan’s stance.

International meetings often expose confrontations between industrialized and developing countries. Japan’s interests usually run counter to those of developing countries. But this time, the government made meticulous preparations for the meeting and capitalized on developing countries’ frustrations against decision-making led by the United States and European countries.

This tactic worked brilliantly and led to the decision that Japan had been hoping for at the meeting.

Japanese man carries bluefin tuna.

Man, the last time I heard of the Libyans, they were demanding their nuclear bomb from Doc Brown.

In addition to Libya, though, both China and South Korea voted against the proposal as well.

Why China? For those of you who watch television, you might have seen a WildAid commercial featuring Yao Ming. He’s dining at a fancy schmancy restaurant and is served a bowl of Shark Fin Soup, well-known as a Chinese delicacy. At this point, he notices a shark in the fancy schmancy restaurant’s indoor aquarium but, get this, it’s bleeding profusely from the stump that was its fin. Despite the fact that a restaurant isn’t likely to throw the shark back in, bleeding profusely, as if it’d whet the appetites of its customers, the point is dramatically well made. Seeking to avoid possible regulation of the shark trade, China opposed the attempt to regulate the bluefin tuna trade.

Environmentalists — particularly American environmentalists — are understandably not too happy with this defeat.

From The Economist:

According to David Allison of OCEANA, a marine charity, the Libyan delegate started “screaming and calling everyone liars…He said the science was no good and that it was part of a conspiracy of developed countries. It was theatre. Then he stopped screaming and called for an immediate vote”.

Ah, the delicious conspiracy of developed countries. Indeed.

But what are we really seeing here? Is it so simple as “dammit, these fish are threatened with extinction but those selfish, greedy Japanese people don’t care and have tricked a bunch of other distasteful countries into going against what is morally right!”?

Japanese unloading large Bluefin Tuna fish with a forklift.

Photo credit: Ko Sasaki/NYT

Japanese people eat a lot of bluefin tuna. They have this thing about eating raw fish. I hear it’s pretty popular amongst other countries now. Libya, and 30 European countries, plus Canada…well, commercial fishing is a big part of how they make a living.

A lot of people interpret, decry, and/or present these things in single-issue terms, often abundantly lathered with moral posturing and finger pointing. This is, of course, great for rallying your troops, fermenting their indignation. Unfortunately, this is not so great when it comes to explaining what the hell is going on, what the hell happened, and why. But that’s the nature of politics, isn’t it?

The narrative here is familiar. There’s East versus West, developing countries versus developed countries, economic interests versus environmental interests…Copenhagen anyone?

This is politics, and the Libyan delegate was playing it, just as environmentalists do. Instead of exploiting moral indignation over extinction or emissions or global warming, there’s exploiting moral indignation over developed nations seemingly making the decisions for everyone else.

And when you boil it down, this is countries looking after their geo-political interests. This is governments building alliances with those that share the same interests. This is people looking to exchange support for what matters to them.

This is democratic.

Isn’t it?

  1. Or 80%, depending on who you ask. []


Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  • Some HTML can be used to format your comment.
  • Add a picture to your comments with Gravatar.
  • Please be civil. Comments may be moderated.
  1. lolz

    People should limit their Tuna consumption for health reasons. As much as I enjoy a good piece of Toro Nigiri, Tuna in general contains far more mercury than other types of fishes.

    Japan did a fantastic job pushing through its interest though. This is just more proof that there are no permanent friends/foes in politics.

  2. xian

    Sure is Japan/divide in here. I’m surprised Japan can still effect influence beyond its borders. Their government is showing some serious age.

    “This is democratic.”

    Yes, it is. People vote in cliques and try to pull others into their clique on grounds of common interest. That’s how it’s always been.

    • This isn’t about Japan. It’s about the divide. When we follow the news surrounding China, various narratives repeat themselves and a lot of people mistakenly associate them with China itself when it’s not about China but the system we live in. This is about perspective.

  3. “This is governments building alliances with those that share the same interests.”

    No, actually.

    It’s stronger economies buying or coercing weaker nations or miniscule island states to vote with them on issues that they otherwise have no interest in being associated with.

    • stuart, thank you for repeating my next line:

      This is people looking to exchange support for what matters to them.

      …in single-issue terms, often abundantly lathered with moral posturing and finger pointing.

      thereby proving my point.

      • “stuart, thank you for repeating my next line”

        Yes, but why say it 12 words when you can say it in 28?

        Seriously, I was emphasising that the case in point was not an example of countries “building alliances with those that share the same interests”.

        When China is ready to begin strip mining Antarctica, this is how they’ll work around the objections of the US and others.

        • stuart, how is the case in point not an example?

          • Hmm… I see it’s time for my weekly scolding. Let’s try again:

            *deep breath, fingers crossed*

            The only ‘shared interest’ some of Japan’s UN supporters have with sushi is the sordid night of pleasure some cheap-assed diplomat spent with a Tokyo call-girl of the same name during a weekend ‘fact finder’.

          • stuart, who said the shared interest was about sushi? The shared interest is seeing the Atlantic bluefin tuna trade continue. Japan needs to continue importing. Other countries need to continue exporting. If there is any place where overfishing of tuna is particularly evident, it’s the Mediterranean. Guess which countries operate there. Guess which ones Japan appealed to? Guess which ones voted against the ban proposal?

          • Kai,

            “who said the shared interest was about sushi?”

            The fish thing or the call girl? Just kidding.

            “Japan needs to continue importing. Other countries need to continue exporting.”

            Yes, yes. Definitely a shared interest there. I was thinking more of those minnow states enlisted to Japan’s cause via the pocket.

          • stuart,

            …which is still countries building alliances. Which is still people exchanging support. Which is still democratic. Is it not?

          • “Which is still democratic. Is it not?”

            Yes, so long as there is no coercion by the more powerful government to have their allies’ domestic critics of the bluefin tuna policy silenced (assuming there are any).

            Btw, thanks for snipping out that comment earlier. Much appreciated.

    • lolz

      “It’s stronger economies buying or coercing weaker nations or miniscule island states to vote with them on issues that they otherwise have no interest in being associated with.”

      Isn’t that the whole point of diplomacy? You give other nations $$$, you get their support on issues which you care about. Win/Win for everyone. Otherwise how could smaller/weaker nations leverage their own interests against larger/powerful nations?

  4. Teacher in C

    The issue in Canada, as far as I’ve heard, isn’t about raw fish, but about seal meat. Our governor-general actually ate raw seal meat on a visit up north, and apparently seal was even served on parliament hill recently. Lots of other countries get their dander up about the seal industry in Canada, not realizing that there are a whole group of people, the Inuit, in the north of Canada who rely on that industry for their survival. The Inuit feel that outsiders coming in and trying to tell them that something their people have been doing for thousands of years is now wrong, is, well, wrong. As long as the seals aren’t nearing extinction, I tend to agree with them.

    The part about the Libyan screaming the science is all lies is interesting. ANyone know the story behind this? I think in general scientists are able to show pretty accurately what the numbers are in these cases, it’s pretty hard to imagine someone pulling off a lie when talking about something being endangered.

  5. Sadly the Libyan representative seems to have consumed too much Bluefin -he’s exhibiting the classic effects of Mercury:
    – Disrupted nervous system
    – Damaged brain functions.
    And the Japanese should be mindful of the belief of the Greeks that the gods punish people by granting them their wishes.

    • friendo

      The Japanese should also be mindful that Greece is no longer taken seriously, if that will dissuade them from using superstition as policy.

  6. Jones

    The Libyan delegate is a well-known weeaboo, actually.

    Well, not really, but I do love how he uses the “science is a lie” method in serious debate. Huge balls.

  7. hm

    man, that fish can feed a big family for a month! They’re huge!!

    Anyway, I’m sure they’ll just implement new policies to somehow help ‘protect’ the fishes.

  8. B-real

    They can clone tuna. Throw it in the sea and no one will ever know. 2 cents

  9. None of these natural resources management problems would be at issue if the nations of the world gave up all their sovereignty to a New World Order type global government, replete with black helicopters and gulags full of Libertarians. It’s the only way – why doesn’t everyone get that?

    • Jones

      As an honorable member of Nader’s Raiders, I’m afraid I can not allow you to do that. Prepare to be boarded.

    • King Tubby

      New World Order, black helicopters and renditions.

      Truly sidesplitting….The Mirth. The Mirth.

      Just more hight tech than drinking tea, retrievers and black jails.

      Incidentally, libertarians come in two political persuasions..left and right …which one are you repleting?

  10. Christine

    BBC has this gripping news on a voting anecdote in CITES:

    In a test run on the electronic balloting device in CITES, delegates from 150 countries were asked to answer a simple question “Is Doha the capital of Qatar?” Of the 150 countries, Croatia, Cameron answered “no” to the question, while China abstained.

    Whether it is a short-circuit of the machine or a short-circuit of the cognition of the delegates from the 3C countries is debatable. But I think the BBC reporter captured it pretty well, “What this identified, I think, is a level of cynicism and mistrust that is new to the convention.”

    • “delegates were asked to answer a simple question ‘Is Doha the capital of Qatar?’… China abstained.”

      I’d like to think that the Chinese delegate was attempting self-deprecating humour, but then it wouldn’t be half as funny.


      • Jones

        Filial rule. Over 100,000,000 years ago, China owned Doha. It was, is, and always will be a part of the motherland. Of course they won’t admit it even belongs to another country.

  11. Christine

    Also, could anyone tell me where I can substantiate the 30 abstention vote count from EU in CITES? As far as I know, the European Union announced to join the US in support of the motion. Norway, for example, is among the EU member states to stop the the hunting and trading of bluefin tuna.


  12. Dan

    It’s bad science is what it is and I for one find it downright nutty that Libya has any say at all in the science behind the tuna fishery. I mean, has any Libyan professor contributed a scientific paper of any repute in the last 100 years? I highly doubt it.

    Japan is acting in contravention of international law on whaling and it is extends its rapaciousness to tuna too.

    • Christine

      This is because you are judging the trees by their barks. Libya is one of the wealthiest countries in Africa. In 2005, a major regional research center for medical pathology was headquartered in Tripoli. There’s a report from Science highlighting the Libya’s government commitment to lift its status as a science hub in Africa.

      While Libya definitely cannot compete in the global S&T arena with other developed countries but this does not mean that all Libyans are scientifically illiterate, war-mongering barbarians.