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CITES meeting rejects protection for marine species

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Qatar rejected protection for marine species, including sharks, bluefin tuna, and coral, disappointing the US, environmentalists, and marine scientists.

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The next day, at a critical point in the debate, a Libyan delegate stood and denounced scientific assessments as “lies” and forced an early vote, observers told the Monitor. The vote went 68 to 20 against with 30 abstentions – and the trade ban on bluefin tuna was dead.

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After that vote, Japan opposed restrictions on shark trade, Griffin says, but mostly because it doesn't want CITES to be involved in regulating trade in any kind of fish, lest that precedent expand back to species such as tuna.

One marine species, the Porbeagle shark, did win brief approval for trade restrictions in an early round of voting and came close to being protected, but ultimately failed to win the two-thirds majority required on the last day.

Scientists were clearly unhappy with the actions of the nations at the CITES conference.

"It's a dark day for science," says Boris Worm, associate professor of marine conservation biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who has seen northern cod populations fished to near extinction in Canadian waters despite years of scientific advice to curb fishing.

Paradoxically, his published research shows fish populations can rebound if they get tough protections. But not without real protection and curbs on fishing. At the meeting in Doha, he says, "quite clearly the science was thrown to the wind."

Most notable, he and others say, was CITES's failure to adopt an international trade ban to protect the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna, an "iconic" powerful predator species whose population is now in grave danger of extinction.

In the Atlantic Ocean, bluefin tuna are managed as two separate fish stocks. One is the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean stock; the other is the Western Atlantic stock. Western Atlantic bluefin spawning stocks have stabilized at "a very low" population level, after dropping by 82 percent from 1970 to 2007, the US Department of the Interior reported last month.

But the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean stocks that were the focus at Doha Continue to plummet, with most of the drop occurring in the past decade. In 2007 there were just 78,724 metric tons of spawning tuna remaining in the Eastern Atlantic, down from a peak of more than 305,000 tons in the mid-1950s, the department said.

On the plus side, delegates from the US were able to point to some gains at the meeting, noting that for the first time the convention recognized some effects on species from climate change. But the conference as a whole was still a clear disappointment for them.

"It has been a challenging conference," Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Department of the Interior, told reporters.

The US, he said, would redouble efforts to get the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) to do its job as regulator and enforce its quotas on bluefin tuna. Still, that group's poor record has some calling it the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.

"CITES is not the only game in town with the bluefin," Mr. Strickland said. The ICCAT "is a very important organization – at least theoretically."

IN PICTURES: CITES conference fails to protect any threatened marine species