Science & Environment

Giant US trade deal might weaken shark fin ban

Shark Image copyright SPL
Image caption The Oceanic Whitetip is one of the species of shark now protected from shark finning

Environmental campaigners are "extremely concerned" that a new trade deal involving the US could weaken attempts to end shark finning.

The first steps to outlaw the practice were agreed at a meeting in Bangkok last March.

But the leaked draft text of the new deal involving 12 Pacific countries has no binding commitment to curb finning.

The long-running negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement are due to conclude in April.

The TPP is being billed as a critical part of President Obama's strategy of engaging with Asia. He's called it his "top trade priority."

But green groups are disturbed over the direction the negotiations are taking. They are worried that concessions are being made on critical environmental issues in order to secure agreement.

Last March, delegates at the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meeting in Bangkok agreed to enhance protection for a number of species. The belief was that this would lead to a reduction in shark finning.

In finning, the fish are left to die after their fins are cut off, to supply a lucrative trade in shark fin soup. It's estimated that millions of sharks die this way every year.

But the leaked draft text of the environmental chapter of the new agreement is "very weak" on this issue according to campaigners.

"We've been calling for a ban on shark finning, which should be in this chapter," said Ilana Solomon from the Sierra Club.

"All we got in the text was a suggestion that countries should come up with fish management plans that may include, as appropriate, measures to address shark finning."

The Office of the US Trade Representative said that the negotiations were still ongoing, and they would be pushing hard for strong environmental measures, including a ban on shark finning.

"A prohibition on shark-finning is one among the many trailblazing proposals that the United States has contributed to the TPP," said a spokesman.

"Despite resistance, we are continuing to push for the strongest possible outcome that is fully supported by comprehensive environmental enforcement."

Toothless agreement

In 2007, President George W Bush reached an agreement with Congress that any future free trade agreements would include a list of environmental treaties that all the signatories would agree to uphold.

But the proposed new deal simply acknowledges that countries have made commitments under agreements like Cites. It does not insist that the commitments be honoured.

"If the environment chapter is finalised as written in this leaked document, President Obama's environmental trade record would be worse than George W Bush's," said Michael Brune, also with the Sierra Club.

"This draft chapter falls flat on every single one of our issues - oceans, fish, wildlife, and forest protections - and in fact, rolls back on the progress made in past free trade pacts."

The US negotiators say they are pushing hard for strong environmental protection in the deal. But since the nations they are negotiating with are huge exporters of natural resources including timber and fish, environmentalists are concerned that free trade will mean a free for all in endangered but valuable species.

"This peek behind the curtain reveals the absence of an ambitious 21st Century trade agreement promised by negotiating countries," said Carter Roberts from WWF.

"The lack of fully-enforceable environmental safeguards means negotiators are allowing a unique opportunity to protect wildlife and support legal sustainable trade of renewable resources to slip through their fingers."

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