Proposals to limit trading of fish rejected at global conference

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010

The night before officials from 175 countries in Doha, Qatar, were to decide whether the world should stop trading Atlantic bluefin tuna to halt its precipitous decline, the Japanese ambassador hosted a reception for a select group of delegates at his residence.

On the menu was one of his nation's most coveted delicacies: bluefin sushi and sashimi. And the next day, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) voted to allow trading of bluefin tuna to continue across the globe, unchecked.

The world's largest conservation conference, which ended Thursday, provided new protections for everything from an Iranian salamander to Latin American tree frogs and a rare beetle. But it also made one thing clear: When it comes to valuable marine species, protection has its limits.

The unique attributes of marine life -- that these species cross national boundaries and provide sustenance and profits for countries large and small -- make them harder to regulate than land species. And despite a concerted push by activists and the Obama administration, environmentalists were not able to overcome the stiff opposition of delegates who see fishing restrictions as a threat to their nations' socioeconomic fabric.

"CITES was always a place where countries came together and based on science, restricted trade for the sake of conservation," said Susan Lieberman, who directs international policy for the Pew Environment Group and has attended the conference since 1989. "This time, they restricted conservation for the sake of trade."

Delegates rejected every proposal for trade restrictions on commercially valuable marine species -- including ones on bluefin tuna, the polar bear, and multiple species of coral and sharks. On Thursday they overturned the one trade restriction they had imposed on porbeagle sharks earlier in the week.

Japan campaigned vigorously against the measures, and several small coastal nations said protections would impose too heavy an economic and regulatory burden on them.

"Fisheries issues are very complex in terms of management and control. It is not as simple as terrestrial plants and animals," said Grenada's chief fisheries officer, Justin Rennie, in a phone interview from Doha. He added that while his country tries to be responsible when it comes to fishing, "countries are asking us to make certain sacrifices, both economic and social sacrifices."

Thomas L. Strickland, U.S. assistant secretary of the interior for fish, wildlife and parks, who led the American delegation, said the arguments about the financial downside to species protection "were very loud and emphatic at the conference."

"They tend to have more resonance when the economic times are tough," Strickland said, though he said the United States and its allies would continue to press their case in the future.

CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers issued a statement noting that the conference accepted two dozen proposals, including protections for several plants in Madagascar, and rejected an attempt to loosen trade restrictions on African elephants.

"To say that the conference was a disaster is simply an exaggeration," he said, and pointed to the "good lesson" that "biological diversity cannot be incompatible with . . . sustainable development."

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