Global conference rejects bans on trade in bluefin tuna, polar bear

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010; A03

In the contest between commerce and conservation, a global conference this week aimed at protecting imperiled wildlife seems to be giving commerce the upper hand.

Delegates gathered in Doha, Qatar, on Thursday rejected proposals pushed by the United States to impose restrictions on trade in polar bears and Atlantic bluefin tuna, despite arguments that climate change was endangering the polar bears and that bluefin tuna has been fished to precipitously low levels. The group earlier defeated a measure aimed at exposing problems in the global shark trade.

The 175 nations represented at the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora could reconsider the decisions before the meeting ends next week, but they have shown little inclination to make economic sacrifices for the sake of conservation.

CITES, which meets every 2 1/2 years to decide whether the world should curb trade in an array of coveted plants and animals, has over four decades restricted the sale of such things as rhino horns, elephant tusks and mahogany trees in the Amazon.

This year, delegates are considering an unprecedented number of commercially valuable marine species, including eight kinds of shark and more than two dozen corals. U.S. officials and environmentalists thought the case for protection was strong, with the prospect of climate change melting polar bears' sea-ice habitat and the dramatic drop in the adult population of bluefin tuna.

But while the conference serves to focus public attention on the plight of vulnerable species, it does not always result in heightened environmental protections.

"Today it is clear countries are not ready to ban trade in species that are commercially important," Juan Carlos Vasquez, a spokesman for the CITES secretary general, said in a phone interview from Doha.

"The fact is these things, more often than not, take more than one round to get where you want to get," Strickland said.

Japan, which imports nearly 80 percent of commercially traded Atlantic bluefin, led a concerted effort to torpedo the measure. It said such restrictions are best left to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which has set catch quotas for the fish for decades.

"They worked it hard, as they have other international conservation issues, such as whaling," Strickland said. "We're going to be contesting Japan and its position on this."

Joseph Hennon, a spokesman for the European Commission, said the new focus on bluefin had shifted the attitudes of some European Union members, which have started thinking about the long-term economic implications of overfishing. "If there's no fish for them, there's no fishery," he said.

Long-term sustenance

In both trade bans that delegates considered Thursday, U.S. officials and environmentalists argued that the world needs to stop bringing these animals to the market to sustain them over the long term.

Andrew Wetzler, who directs the Wildlife Conservation Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, said the polar bear could benefit if nations such as Canada, which allows the killing of 300 polar bears a year for international trade and trophy hunting, stopped sponsoring commercial hunts.

"You need to reduce all the stresses on that population to give it the best chance of survival possible," Wetzler said, adding that he was encouraged that Canada had just announced that it would scale back its hunt in Baffin Bay by 40 bears over the next four years.

A 2007 U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the population of polar bears would decline by more than 70 percent within 45 years as their sea-ice habitat melts. In 2008, the United States listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. proposal to list polar bears on Appendix I of the convention, which dictates a total trade ban, failed by a vote of 48 to 62, with 11 abstentions.

The proposal by Monaco and the United States to list Atlantic bluefin on Appendix I failed, with 20 in favor, 68 against and 30 abstaining.

The adult population of eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna has declined 74 percent over the past half-century, much of it in the past decade, and the population has dropped 82 percent in 40 years in the western Atlantic.

"This was a case of just plain ignoring the science for short-term economic gain," said Susan Lieberman, director of international policy at the Pew Environment Group, in an interview from Doha.

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