A U.S.—backed proposal to ban the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna prized in sushi was rejected Thursday by a U.N. wildlife meeting, with scores of developing nations joining Japan in opposing a measure they feared would devastate fishing economies.

Monaco introduced the proposal at the 175—nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES. It argued that extreme measures for the iconic, migratory fish were necessary because the stocks have fallen by 75 percent due to widespread overfishing.

But as the debate opened, it became clear that the proposal had little support. Only the United States, Norway and Kenya supported the proposal outright. The European Union asked that implementation be delayed until May 2011 to give authorities time to respond to concerns about overfishing.

Japan, which imports 80 percent of Atlantic bluefin and has led the opposition to the ban, reiterated its arguments that CITES should have no role in regulating tuna and other marine species. It expressed willingness to accept lower quotas for bluefin tuna but wanted those to come from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or ICCAT, which currently regulates the trade.

“Japan is very much concerned about the status of Atlantic bluefin tuna and Japan has been working so hard for many years to ensure recovery,” Masanori Miyahara, chief counsellor of the Fisheries Agency of Japan, told delegates. “But our position is very simple. Let us do this job in ICCAT, not in CITES. This position is shared by majority of Asian nations.”

Monaco tried to sway the delegates by reminding them that ICCAT has for years failed to maintain sustainable quotas that were supported by its own scientists. It also unsuccessfully tried to dispel fears that a CITES listing would last forever - even including language allowing Atlantic bluefin to be delisted once the stock recovers.

“This exploitation is no longer exploitation by traditional fishing people to meet regional needs,” Monaco’s Patrick Van Klaveren told delegates. “Industrial fishing of species is having a severe effect on numbers of this species and its capacity to recover. We are facing a real ecosystem collapse.”

The tuna defeat came hours after delegates rejected a U.S. proposal to ban the international sale of polar bear skins and parts, showing that economic interest at this meeting appeared to be trumping conservation. It also raised the prospect that a CITES meeting that was packed with several dozen promising proposals could end next week in failure for environmentalists.

The Americans argued that the sale of polar bears skins is compounding the loss of the animals’ sea ice habitat due to climate change. There are projections that the bear’s numbers, which are estimated at 20,000 to 25,000, could decline by two—thirds due by 2050 due to habitat loss in the Arctic.

But Canada, Greenland and several indigenous communities argued the trade had little impact on the white bears population and would adversely affect their economies.

More In: International | News