The Monitor's View

Earth Hour? How about endangered species hour?

Just as Earth Hour can pressure governments on global warming, so can consumers push politicians to protect endangered species such as bluefin tuna, several kinds of sharks, and corals -- all of which were abandoned at a UN wildlife conference.

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Millions of people around the world are switching off their lights for Earth Hour Saturday night in a growing grass-roots effort to conserve energy and draw attention to global warming.

But can they also stop eating shark soup or sushi made from bluefin tuna?

That kind of consumer action may be what it takes to save certain endangered marine animals, because governments decided this week not to come to their rescue. About a half-dozen shark species, the bluefin tuna, various corals (yes, corals are animals), and the polar bear all failed to receive international protection at the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

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(For Monitor coverage of the CITES meeting, click here.)

This United Nations wildlife group meets every few years to consider whether to restrict the international trade of threatened plant and animal life. Over 35 years, CITES has helped preserve 5,000 animal species and 28,000 plant species by limiting their harvest and sale.

At the meeting just ended, the 175 countries that gathered in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, beat back efforts to relax the trade ban on elephant ivory. And they added protections to for rhinos, various reptiles sold as pets, and wild tigers.

But conservationists were deeply disappointed by the inaction on marine life, which took up more of the CITES agenda than ever before. The threat in oceans and seas has grown. Stocks of the bluefin tuna, for instance, have fallen more than 80 percent since 1970, much of it during the last decade. The fish is a big money-maker, and can sell for $100,000 per fish.

Japan, which imports most of the tuna, led the fight against a proposed ban. Nations where livelihoods depend on fishing the tuna and on harvesting other marine species held sway over countries, including the US, that pointed to scientific evidence of drastically dwindling populations.

Commerce vs. conservation is often at the center of environmental battles, whether they involve global warming or the spotted owl.

Over the years, environmentalists have learned that arguing solely on behalf of other life forms is not enough. They’ve had to earn degrees in economics and sociology to learn to marry their causes with the human one – explaining, for instance, that humans depend on bats to pollinate or on coral reefs to support other marine life that is advantageous to mankind.

In Qatar, the concern about lost livelihoods during difficult economic times was particularly acute. But jobs that depend on harvesting endangered species will quickly disappear if those species are not protected.

Governments should provide incentives to manage endangered ecosystems, and to help people transition into other kinds of work. Instead, they’re hastening the demise of species and the jobs related to them.

As countries prepare for the next CITES meeting in Thailand in 2013, they should not forget the marine species that were turned down this time. Grass-roots pressure can do much to push governments toward a more responsible approach to marine life management. On Saturday, when people switch off the lights at 8:30 p.m. for Earth Hour, they should also consider switching off their appetites for bluefin tuna or pink and red coral jewelry. And for longer than just an hour.

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