Why we failed (CITES debacle explained)

In the past two weeks we have witnessed the dismantling of 4 shark proposals (representing 6 species) and a blue fin tuna proposal, all of which were presented at this year’s CITES convention.  CITES’ (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) sole mission is to regulate the international trade of depleted populations of animals and plants.  At a time when environmental awareness, ecosystem services, and the links between climate change and biodiversity loss are becoming better defined, the following questions must be asked—how did the Convention fail to pass these proposals?  Are we really lacking the fundamental tools necessary to conserve and repair the planet’s natural systems?

With no international trade regulations in place, it's impossible to slow the destruction of shark species

First, here’s why the shark and tuna proposals failed:

CITES is composed of 175 member nations.  During the Convention’s meeting (held every 2-3 years) each member country or “party” gets to vote for or against proposals to include certain species into one of the Convention’s three appendices (see post “Costa Rica to swim with the hammerheads” for an explanation of how CITES is structured).  If a proposal for a certain animal achieves a 2/3 majority vote by the parties, the 175 member nations are obliged to amend their national policies and procedures to regulate said specie’s international trade.

At the Conference of the CITES Parties (CoP15) on March 13-25 in Doha, Qatar, 3 of the 4 shark proposals (and the tuna proposal)  failed to obtain the 2/3 vote.  This was due in no small part to China and Japan’s strident lobbying and bribing efforts, two countries openly opposed to the involvement of all international authorities in the regulation of ocean fish because of their shark fin and tuna sushi markets.  Japan sent an army of 30 strong to the convention in Doha.  They held parties at their embassy, served blue fin sushi to foreign delegates, and reportadly distributed envelopes with money during a dinner to developing country delegates the day before the shark proposals were voted on.  Of course this is a rumor, but many delegates were very angry at the results and commented that this was one of the dirtiest CoPs they had attended.  Why else would the Camodian delegate make a fool of himself and argue against the porbeagle proposal, saying that it would be to costly for his country to implement an Appendix II listing because it would be very difficult to do a non detriment finding for their exports, when the porbeagle shark—a close relative of the great white shark that is prized for its meat—doesn’t even exist in their waters?!?!

The stark reality is that while China and Japan only represent 2 votes, they amassed more support by pressuring smaller economically unstable countries like Antigua and Barbuda, Cambodia, Cameroon and Kyrgyzstan to vote against the proposals making the 2/3 majority impossible to achieve.

And it gets worse.  The porbeagle proposal actually won, but was re-opened in plenary and overturned, thus making it a clean sweep for the world’s unrelenting, unsustainable, fishing economies.

...and what does the future now hold for blue fin tuna?

So, where do we go from here?

It’s clear that powerful global economies continue to dictate biodiversity conservation policy and will throw seemingly endless resources in order to insure they continue to do so.  Besides the obvious measures we can all take to only consume sustainably caught seafood, and limit/stop our seafood intake in order to ease the pressure we exert on the ocean’s finite resources, it’s important to recognize that there are a number of countries whose votes could be swayed by a stronger conservation NGO presence.  Grant money must be secured to strengthen lobbying efforts within countries currently being manipulated by Japan and China’s economic pressures.  If more people and resources are involved, then our conservation efforts will be made stronger.

There is a dark cloud hanging above me here in San José today; but I also believe that while we’re failing, the fight resumes, and I’m willing to keep trying.  Thank you for reading and caring.

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