IT WAS a moment of some drama when delegates assembled in Doha came to vote on a ban in the trade in bluefin tuna on March 18th. The previous evening many representatives of the 175 member nations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) had been at a reception at the Japanese embassy. Prominent on the menu was bluefin tuna sushi. On the agenda the next day at the CITES meeting was a proposal to list the bluefin tuna as sufficiently endangered that it would qualify for a complete ban in the trade of the species (The Economist supports such a ban).
The complex proposal called for further discussion of the bluefin tuna’s plight. Europe, the United States, Monaco and Norway were hoping to move to an adjournment, which would have allowed a proper investigation of the issues over the weekend. Kevern Cochrane, the representative from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), agreed. He also acknowledged that the official FAO panel had decided that the species met the scientific criteria for listing as a sufficiently endangered species qualifying for a trade ban–the bluefin tuna population has dropped below 15% of its maximum historical level.
At this stage, eyewitnesses report that the Libyan delegation made an unusual intervention. According to David Allison of OCEANA, a marine charity, the Libyan delegate started “screaming and calling everyone liars…He said the science was no good and that it was part of a conspiracy of developed countries. It was theatre. Then he stopped screaming and called for an immediate vote”. Another witness, Sergi Tudela , a fisheries expert with the WWF, agreed. “The Libyan representative accused the FAO of serving political interests and said there was no scientific basis for the listing.”
After this the talking stopped. The call for a ban, proposed by Monaco, was put to an immediate vote using a procedural ploy and rejected with 68 votes against, 20 in favour and 30 abstentions. The Americans, in particular, are disappointed. A number of agencies had been working hard to prepare for the meeting, none more so than the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NOAA responded to the vote by committing to ensure that the organisation which currently manages bluefin tuna (albeit woefully) would implement fully its commitments and would continue to try to reduce fishing levels in line with scientific advice. The Japanese, however, will be delighted. The country has been lobbying hard against the ban for some time.
The outlook for the bluefin tuna is not good. Scientists already agree that the population is crashing, and that quotas allocated to fishermen remain too generous to give any reasonable degree of certainty of a recovery. The extent to which illegal fishing can be brought under control will also have a big impact on whether the population has a chance of recovering. It is technically possible that bluefin tuna could be put back on the agenda before the meeting closes on March 25th, but this it is unlikely to happen. It seems likely that a fresh attempt to list bluefin tuna will have to wait until the next CITES meeting in three years time.
That may be too late for the bluefin tuna. Libya has used a procedural ruse to force a vote without any substantial discussion of the scientific, technical or economic issues. It has sidestepped the only public forum that exists to discuss whether action is needed to save a species that is being fished, traded and eaten to extinction. Had the discussion taken place before a vote to reject the trade ban, this would at least have counted as an honourable victory.