To conservationists it was a gratuitous act of provocation; but to the Japanese officials whose embassy served bluefin tuna sushi to guests hours before last week’s UN vote on a trade ban on the fish, it was a show of confidence that their diplomatic offensive had worked.
Confirmation duly came when delegates at the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or Cites, voted against the tuna trade ban in Qatar’s capital, Doha.
Japan’s aggressive lobbying operation in the days before the vote will be familiar to veterans of International Whaling Committee meetings, where poor island nations vote with Japan in return for investment in their fishing industries.
Now, with the dust still settling on a disappointing summit for conservationists, activists are concerned that trade and commercial considerations are overriding the need to conserve other threatened species.
“Japan clearly mobilised massive efforts to keep fisheries out of Cites,” Mark W Roberts, the senior counsel and policy adviser for the Environmental Investigation Agency, told the Associated Press. Japanese officials flooded the conference floor, offering advice to supportive delegates.
Their endeavours, carried out with all the precision of a military operation, also brought defeats for proposals to regulate the coral trade and protect several species of shark targeted for their fins.
In another tactic copied from whaling negotiations, Japan was testing the diplomatic waters months before the UN meeting, gauging how many votes it would need to assure victory.
Last week, members of the 30-strong Japanese delegation were using their years of negotiating experience at conservation meetings to devastating effect. The EU, by contrast, was divided over its response, while the US dithered before finally voting for the bluefin ban.
But by then, Japan had built up a formidable coalition of 68 votes, while 20 voted in favour of the ban, with 30 abstaining.
The result has been greeted with relief among fish traders and sushi lovers in Japan, which imports 80% of the Atlantic bluefin catch.
“We were very pleased with the result, but that doesn’t change the fact that criticism persists over the management of tuna stocks,” a fisheries agency official, Kenji Kagawa, told the Guardian.
“It should never have been up to the Washington convention to determine policy. Protecting stocks and stamping out illegal fishing is the work of regional fisheries bodies,” such as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.
While countries that voted against the ban, including Libya, Egypt and Zambia, denied they had been subjected to undue pressure, Japan conceded it had funds to offer to fishing industries in developing countries, and that some of that money had been used to send delegates to attend the Doha meeting.
The infamous sushi buffet, said Masanori Miyahara, chief counsellor at the fisheries agency, was nothing more than an innocent cultural event.
“We wanted to show what it is,” he said of the servings of prime bluefin. “You can’t buy votes by just serving bluefin tuna. That’s a silly idea.”