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CITES: Murky waters for marine conservation

Richard Black | 17:33 UK time, Thursday, 25 March 2010

So, the once-every-three-years Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting has come to an end; and rather like the last time, conservationists are coming away with hands empty, apart from a few scrappy morsels of succour.

I haven't been at the meeting in Doha, but I have been talking regularly to people there; those who arrived thinking it might produce something to halt unsustainable fish catches, in particular, are not happy bunnies.

It's a safe bet that those Qatari bars that aren't dry will see plenty of sorrow-drowning before delegates take their leave.

HammerheadNot only did the bid for a trade ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna fall - it fell spectacularly, not coming remotely close to securing a majority.

(This is the species, you may recall, believed by scientists to be below 15% of its abundance in the days before industrial fishing began.)

Proposals to restrict trade in four shark species - hammerhead, porbeagle, oceanic white-tip and spiny dogfish - also fell, as did a bid on the red and pink corals used in jewellery.

This made it a virtual clean sweep for countries that do not want to see trade restrictions used to conserve marine creatures of commercial interest - even if, like the scalloped hammerhead and porbeagle, they reside on the Red List of Threatened Species.

Sue Lieberman of the Pew Environment Group, who has longer experience than most of CITES, observed archly:

"CITES has always been a treaty that restricts trade for conservation. Now it restricts conservation for the sake of trade."

There were agreements to strengthen measures on trade in tiger products and rhino horn, but these really add up to implementing promises already made - nothing more.

And the elephant ivory discussions ended up reinforcing the status quo, with no new legal ivory sales sanctioned, but equally with no agreement on a long-term ban on future sales.

Shark finsThis is the second CITES meeting running at which people seeking greater protection on sea life have - if you'll pardon the expression - got their collective butts kicked; and there seems no reason to believe things will be any different next time.

The forces ranged against this conservation initiative are several. There are countries that traditionally eat a lot of fish and are determined to preserve their right to catch and to buy - a phalanx headed by Japan, but with Iceland, among others, in the vanguard.

Others, such as China, are traditionally opposed to international regulation - or interference, as it may be construed - in matters seen as being of national interest.

Others, such as Libya, are relatively new entrants into the business of commercial fisheries; and part of their argument is that as they did nothing to destroy a species (Atlantic bluefin, in this case), why should they be punished now?

(You may have noticed that this parallels the reasoning traditionally used by developing countries when arguing against curbs on their carbon emissions.)

Though it's hard to argue against it on the basis of simple equity, it falls at the logical imperative of ecology. If tuna are dangerously depleted, they're dangerously depleted; it doesn't matter whether they are now fished by Libyan or Spanish boats, the consequences will be the same.

(The author Mark Lynas makes the same point regarding carbon emissions; arguing that only the rich must cut, he says, is the logic of mutually assured destruction.)

Power stationBy the time the next CITES meeting comes around, the Atlantic bluefin may have reached commercial extinction.

It depends on whether countries inside the organisation charged with regulating the fishery, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat), crack down as they have pledged on illegal fishing and on the "oversights" by their national fleets that carry them over their allocated quotas.

(Often Iccat itself is criticised for mismanagement - but what is Iccat except the countries in it? As the independent performance review commissioned on the organisation two years ago made clear, it's nation states that are behind the failures.)

It also depends on luck. Will the fish have a couple of highly successful spawning seasons that will see stocks replenish, or a couple of relatively barren ones?

It's worth recalling that the countries and campaign groups arguing for bans on tuna and shark trading through CITES were doing so only because Iccat and its fellows have so signally failed to live up to their mandates of conserving the stocks, year after year.

And having lost here, the question is begged: what else is there?

It is not a particularly good time to be asking the question, however.

Any agreement to curb fishing on these species has to be international, because the fish certainly don't recognise boundaries between national waters.

But the overwhelming message from the biggest and loudest environment summit of our time - Copenhagen - is that major governments are becoming more reluctant to deal with environmental issues on a multilateral basis, if multilateralism means being prepared to move your national position to meet the concerns of your neighbours.

Some people of much longer experience than me are asking whether it would be possible to pass a treaty such as CITES now, in the current climate.

So "what next?" is an important question. Consumer power? International law? The linking of overseas aid to support for conservation?

If you have an answer, please post below; an army of tired and frustrated conservationists in Doha is thirsty for your ideas, as well as for a drink or 10.

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