The US announced on Wednesday that it will support a ban on the international trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna. The announcement comes prior to this month's meeting in Qatar of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Atlantic bluefin tuna is being overfished and there are fears it could become extinct.
Repeated attempts to allow the species to recover have failed under the pressure to supply a market willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a single fish.
Later this month, a proposal to ban the international trade of bluefin tuna will be debated by almost 200 countries that signed the UN convention on endangered species.
Rebecca Lent is in charge of International Affairs at NOAA Fisheries, the US government agency responsible for protecting the country's marine resources. "There were bluefin tuna in the good old days in Brazil but those stocks were fished out and they are gone," she said. "So it's primarily a north Atlantic species now."
The proposal would declare bluefin tuna so endangered that a ban on international trade in the fish is required.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been sounding the alarm on bluefin tuna for decades. "Since the 1970s, the western section of the stock, which is the US portion, has declined 82 percent," Roberta Elias, with WWF explained. "So there is only something like 41,000 adults remaining in that population. Some believe that population is stable in contrast to the eastern portion of the stock which is continuing to decline at probably lower population levels."
Bluefin tuna is highly popular in Japan, where much of it goes for sushi and sashimi. Japan consumes some 80 percent of all bluefin tuna. It opposes the ban.
"We're trying our best to avoid having a ban enacted," Hirotaka Akamatsu, Japan's Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries said. Japan says it is urging European countries that export bluefin tuna to also oppose a ban.
Warm blooded bluefin tuna can live up to 20 years. Scientists hope the ban would allow bluefin to recover. But while international trade could be outlawed, officials say a robust black market could survive. To deal with the shortage, Japan has bluefin tuna farms.
But there's a reason such farms are not more widespread, Lent said. "These fish are voracious eaters. In order for it to be economically profitable we are going to have to find some way to get cheaper food for fish. The best way to deal with bluefin tuna fisheries really is to manage it well in the wild."
In addition to bluefin tuna, measures to protect sharks and coral will also be debated at the upcoming conference in Qatar.