Efforts to ban international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna sank like a stone Thursday, disappointing both the US and environmentalists and raising doubts about whether the delectable fish can survive in the long term.
Scientific surveys have shown the Atlantic bluefin tuna to be in sharp decline, and supporters of a ban said they had sensed an international consensus building around the need to take action.
The ban's failure prompted some dire predictions from those who have been lobbying for action.
“The abject failure of governments here at CITES to protect Atlantic bluefin tuna spells disaster for its future and sets the species on a pathway to extinction," Greenpeace spokesman Oliver Knowles said in a statement.
US officials, too, were unhappy about the outcome, though they vowed to try to protect the bluefin through regulatory means. "Some procedural aspects of [the bluefin meeting] were disappointing," Jane Lyder, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks and acting head of the US delegation, acknowledged to reporters in a teleconference Thursday.
US officials and other pro-ban delegates appeared to be caught off guard during debate when Libya's representative, shouting and waving his arms, interrupted to complain about the problems such a trade ban would cause. After several minutes, he quieted and called for a vote.
With the US and delegates from the European Union not on one page about how soon to begin a ban, and with discussion cut short, their trade ban proposals were each voted down.
The ban's opponents won support among developing nations, which seemed receptive to the argument that major economic damage would result if a ban were adopted, said David Allison, a senior campaigner with Oceana, who was in the hall at the time and who described the sequence of events in a phone interview with the Monitor. His account was corroborated by phone by others in attendance.
Ms. Lyder concurs. "I think the opponents of this listing were very successful convincing people that this listing would have a bad impact on them," she told reporters.
"There is no question that to be pushed to a vote on the plan so soon was a shock to everyone," Gemma Parkes, a bluefin expert in the Rome office of the World Wildlife Fund, said in a phone interview. "It's definitely a bust on the tuna. We had a golden opportunity to do the right thing. On other species we're still hopeful. But on the tuna, unfortunately, it's a failure."
What the numbers show
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. The former has been in steep decline for a decade, the Interior Department says. Western Atlantic bluefin spawning stocks have stabilized at "a very low" population level, after dropping by 82 percent from 1970 to 2007, Interior reported last month.
The Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean stocks are continuing to plummet, though, with most of the drop occurring in the past decade. In 2007, 78,724 metric tons of spawning biomass remained in the Eastern Atlantic, down from a peak of more than 305,000 tons in the mid-1950s, the department said.
In other business at CITES, six species of shark may yet be listed for closer trade regulation – though not an entire ban, says Elisabeth McLellan, manager of the species program for the World Wildlife Fund. Sharks are under increasing risk from "finning," which has decimated their numbers in the wild.
"We still have hopes for regulating trade for the sharks," she says. "At any meeting like this, you want the science to influence the debate, but of course politics is going to be there. It's just a pity the science didn't win this time for the bluefin tuna."