DOHA, Qatar -- A contentious battle between Asia and the West over the fate of the Atlantic bluefin tuna prized by sushi lovers overshadowed a United Nations conference that opened Saturday in the Gulf state of Qatar.
The 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, was discussing new proposals on regulating the trade in number of plant and animal species, including an all-out ban on the export of Atlantic bluefin that has been particularly opposed by seafood-mad Japan.
Raw tuna is a key ingredient in traditional dishes such as sushi and sashimi, and the bluefin variety -- called "hon-maguro" in Japan -- is particularly prized.
But global stocks of bluefin are dwindling, especially in the Atlantic, and governments around the world are increasingly supporting a complete trade ban to let the fish recover. About 80 percent of the species ends up in Japan.
CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers said last week that support for the ban was growing and was hopeful the ban would be approved doing the two-week meeting.
"There is no scientific argument against that," said Wijnstekers, whose organization has come out in support of the export ban.
There are 42 proposals on the table at the conference, addressing a range of issues from combating elephant poaching for ivory in Africa to banning trade in polar bear skins. But those focusing on sharks and tuna are likely to be among the most contentious.
They pit the Europeans and Americans against fishing nations in North Africa and Asia, especially Japan, which has already vowed to ignore any bluefin ban. A bid to regulate the trade in red and pink corals -- harvested to make expensive jewelry -- could also divide the delegates.
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, more than half of all marine fish stocks are under threat.
Monaco -- the sponsor of the proposed ban on the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna -- says numbers have fallen by nearly 75 percent since 1957. But most of the decline has occurred over the last decade with demand driven by sushi lovers in Japan and elsewhere for the bluefin' succulent red and pink meat.
Supporters said the ban is necessary because the Atlantic bluefin is a migratory species that swims from the Western Atlantic to the Mediterranean -- putting it beyond any one country's border. Compounding the tuna's plight is the growing threat from illegal fishing fleets and the failure of existing measures that are supposed to ensure the tuna is sustainable.
The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or ICCAT, is tasked with protecting the tuna. But critics said the intergovernmental body consistently ignores its own scientists in setting quotas and does little to stop countries from exceeding already high quotas.
Wijnstekers said the latest tuna proposal was a reflection of ICCAT's failures and desires by many countries for tougher action. A tuna ban was first proposed in 1992 and tabled on the condition that ICCAT would implement stronger conservation measures.
"It's 18 years later and things have gone terribly wrong," Wijnstekers said. "Parties are coming to CITES and saying other instruments aren't dealing with this so it's time for CITES to do something more dramatic."
The United States backed the ban proposal last week. Many European countries also expressed support, although France and the European Commission have endorsed a compromise to delay the ban until 2011.
Japan, which consumes 80 percent of Atlantic bluefin eaten worldwide, has said it will ignore the ban. The more critical issue is whether other key fishing countries will join Japan's rebuff -- which would allow them to sell tuna to Japan.
Tokyo also argues that concerns about the extinction of the Atlantic bluefin are overblown.
The threat of a ban has some Japanese warning their culture is under siege. Sushi is an iconic dish in Japan, where fatty bluefin -- called "o-toro" in Japan -- sells for as much as 2,000 yen ($20) a piece in high-end Tokyo restaurants.
The conference in Doha is also expected to discuss ways to tackle the illegal trade of tiger products, and the protection of less-known species such as the spiny-tailed iguanas of Mexico and Central America and the spectacular Dynastes satanas beetle of Latin America -- both prized by collectors.
Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, which administers the CITES, said limiting the trade on a range of threatened species could go a long way to ensuring biodiversity.
"By ensuring that the international trade in wildlife is properly regulated, CITES can assist in conserving the planet's wild fauna and flora from overexploitation and contribute to the sustainable development," Steiner said.