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.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Doha, Qatar, which ended Thursday, rejected a trade ban on red coral, pictured in a close-up,

Endangered sharks got short shrift. So did coral – and bluefin tuna, too.

That was a big letdown for US representatives and environmentalists who attended the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Doha, Qatar, which wrapped up Thursday. Several say they came with high hopes that several species were a lock to be "listed" (protected), but are leaving with nothing.

Nations in attendance soundly rejected international trade restrictions aimed at protecting six shark species, 31 types of coral, and the Atlantic bluefin tuna from extinction, leading to questions as to whether another mechanism besides CITES is needed for protecting economically valuable, but vulnerable marine animals.

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

"This meeting has been a complete disaster for the oceans," says Elizabeth Griffin, a marine scientist and fisheries campaign manager for Oceana, an environmental group, who spoke in a phone interview from Doha. "I question if CITES has the political will to protect economically valuable marine species like sharks. Scientific support for listing these shark species just couldn’t compete with dirty politics."

But others say that CITES, which meets every 2-1/2 years or so, is still the last best hope for globally endangered species, which is roughly the international equivalent of the United States' Endangered Species Act.

The body has been a strong tool for protecting land-based species – such as the elephant-ivory trade ban. It has helped preserve 5,000 species of animals and 28,000 species of plants – from over-exploitation by limiting international trade.

A few marine species – including whale sharks, white sharks, basking sharks, sea horses, and the hawksbill sea turtle – have won CITES protection. But none of those have a high economic value – not compared with the bluefin tuna, which can fetch $100,000 per fish at Japanese fish auctions.

Several marine scientists and environmentalists say that the results at this CITES meeting showed the body's inability to protect marine species in "the commons" where there are no defined borders. They say that lack of political will on the part of some countries, combined with economic self-interest on the part of other countries, trumped species protections even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence of severe species decline.

"This failure is not because negotiators weren't doing their job," says Andrew Rosenberg, an adviser to President Obama's ocean policy task force. "It's because short-term economic interests dominated this conference. Some nations just could not give up the last remaining money to be made on tuna and shark fin soup."

Japan and other fishing and fish-consuming nations lobbied heavily against any restrictions, conferees told the Monitor. Despite support from the US and many European nations, developing nations were strongly swayed by Japanese arguments that trade bans would hurt their nations' economies, they said.

The Japanese, Ms. Griffin says, "hosted dinner at the Japanese embassy, and served blue tuna the night before the vote."

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.

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

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