Delegates had been meeting in Doha for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Conservationists were pushing for a ban on cross border trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna, arguing that fish stocks had fallen by 75 per cent because of overfishing in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic.
Japan, which consumes about three quarters of all bluefin in the world, lobbied aggressively against the ban and announced before the vote it had the support of China and South Korea.
“I am happy. We are satisfied with the result,” said Masonori Miyahara, the head of Japan’s delegation and the country’s top fisheries official.
A single 220-kilogram fish can fetch more than AUS$160,000 at auction in Japan, where it is highly prized as an ingredient for sushi and sashimi.
But the European Commission warned that rejecting the ban threatened the species with extinction.
“If action is not taken, there is a very serious danger that the bluefin will no longer exist,” said the EU’s environmental commissioner Janez Potoznik in Brussels.
The proposal needed the support of two thirds of all nations present to pass. Instead, 68 nations voted against, 20 were in favour and 30 abstained.
The Australian Government announced earlier this week it would not vote for the global ban, but would support stronger trade control measures.
Late last year, Australia agreed to cut its southern bluefin tuna catch by 30 per cent, following a major international agreement.
Environmental groups have slammed the vote, saying it now sets the fish on a path to extinction.
“The abject failure of governments here to protect Atlantic bluefin tuna spells disaster for its future and sets the species on a pathway to extinction,” said Oliver Knowles of Greenpeace International.
Anticipating a possible defeat at the Doha meeting, Monaco was set to table amendments to its proposal, while Europe – backed by Norway – was poised to call for the formation of a working group to hammer out a compromise.
But in a procedural move, Libya short-circuited the debate and called for an up-or-down vote on the original proposition, which was then defeated.