Thinking globally to save riches of the sea
International efforts called key to halting overfishing, exploitation

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Given the price a single bluefin tuna can fetch -- one sold for a record $173,600 a few years ago at Tokyo's Tsukiji market -- it's not surprising that the rich, buttery fish is a prized catch. Or that it has prompted a feeding frenzy among international traders.

The money at stake for such things as fish for sushi, the red coral fashioned into jewelry for Italian stores and the shark-fin soup served at Chinese banquets has turned the oceans into a wholesale market -- and prompted new concerns about conserving their resources.

A group of nations, including the United States, recently announced a move to add a record number of commercial marine species to the international endangered list, putting them fin by tusk with such iconic land species as rhinos and elephants.

The move reflects both a new global emphasis on ocean conservation and a major failure by the world's fishery managers, who have been charged with overseeing how we use the ocean. But with significant financial interests at stake, these new efforts are encountering resistance.

"We need to use the arrows in our quiver so we can address the threats that are out there," said Tom Strickland, who as head of the Fish and Wildlife Service will lead the U.S. delegation to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in March. "No one country, even if it takes aggressive action, can make a dent in the problem unless there's international cooperation."

It's easier to protect a species with less commercial value than one that fetches as high a price as the bluefin tuna. Tuna vendors at Tsukiji account for 40 percent of the market's stalls.

"Most people actually like to eat bluefin tuna, and don't like to eat whales," said Andrew Rosenberg, professor of natural resources and the environment at the University of New Hampshire.

The convention -- the world's primary mechanism for protecting species endangered through trade -- has restricted the trading of a few marketable marine species in the past, including the European eel and seahorses. But when 175 countries convene in Doha, Qatar, they will consider a list that includes eight shark species, 26 kinds of precious red and pink corals, bluefin tuna and the polar bear, a marine mammal.

"You'll see some very heated and engaged debate, because people know CITES makes a difference," said David Morgan, the convention's chief scientist.

Courtney Sakai, senior campaign director at the advocacy group Oceana, said the petitions to include those marine species reflect a radical shift in the way they are viewed. "Shark fins are today's ivory tusks," Sakai said. "Like elephants, the world is realizing that sharks are more valuable alive than dead."

No one questions that these species are in trouble. Over the past 40 years, the adult population of eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna has declined 72 percent and the same segment of the western Atlantic stock has dropped 82 percent -- all while being governed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which sets catch quotas for the fish and is supposed to curtail illegal fishing. The number of great, smooth and scalloped hammerhead sharks has dropped roughly 70 percent in the northwest Atlantic since 1981.

Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which governs marine species in U.S. waters, said international and domestic regulators have not curbed overexploitation of the sea: "The traditional ways of dealing with the oceans, whether they're commercial species or not, have not been effective."

So conservationists such as Carl Safina, who heads the Blue Ocean Institute and first pressed for international protections for Atlantic bluefin in 1991, have turned to CITES "as a way of filling that vacuum." Sue Lieberman, director of international policy at the Pew Environment Group, said listing these species would force exporting countries to "do some science to determine what's sustainable."

The United States was going to support a proposed ban on the trade of bluefin tuna, then decided to give tuna's governing body one last chance to put a stricter limit on the world's catch.

But at the annual ICCAT meeting in Brazil this month, the group opted for a 2010 eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin catch quota of 13,500 metric tons, rather than the 8,000 the U.S. has sought. Rebecca Lent, who heads NOAA Fisheries' international programs, called the decision "disappointing."

Japan opposes the proposal to ban the bluefin tuna trade, though some Japanese consumers have begun to worry about the state of a fish they covet. Hiroko Nishi, a securities administrator in Tokyo, said she would back an international ban if it's "based on a scientific research. It is not like I would die if I didn't eat tuna. . . . Although, I must say, it would be very disappointing if we couldn't eat it any more."

Several environmental groups and some U.S. retailers are trying to shift public attitudes, in an effort to curb the consumer demand that drives international trade. The World Wildlife Fund has lobbied Asian buyers to shun shark-fin soup and bluefin tuna, and the Silver Spring-based nonprofit SeaWeb has launched a "Too Precious to Wear" campaign about the environmental impact of buying coral for jewelry and home decor. Tiffany & Co. no longer sells coral jewelry; neither does Monique Péan, a District native who designs high-end jewelry in New York City.

Lori Arguelles, SeaWeb's vice president of media and policy, noted that coral species across the globe are already being damaged by climate change, harmful fishing practices and pollution. "With all of the things they're facing, they don't need the extra pressure of the coral trade," she said.

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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