It was a desperate defeat. The European Union and the United States had come to Doha to save the bluefin tuna, a fish so delicious as sushi and sashimi that large specimens fetch $100,000 on the Japanese market. As a consequence the species is as endangered as the white rhino. But, just like the tunas that return each year to the Mediterranean to spawn and find themselves in a labyrinth of nets, the conservationist nations have swum into a trap.
What followed was not pretty. Japan and the fishing nations inflicted a stunning defeat on the conservationist countries, which had wanted to ban international trade in bluefin tuna. Japan’s victory, against the weight of scientific opinion, not only raises the question of whether the bluefin can survive but also whether rationality can ever prevail in preventing endangered species from being obliterated.
Recriminations have already started among the losers in Doha, where the 175 parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) go on meeting until the end of the week. There is anger about the part played by the dithering Spanish presidency of the EU, about French compromises, mutterings about unimaginative British officials and amazement at the failures of EU and US diplomacy.
In theory, these two power blocs had a strong hand. No one could remember a better scientific case to support a temporary ban on trade in any species. Two scientific bodies, the scientific committee of the Atlantic tuna commission, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and a special panel of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation agreed that the bluefin stock qualified for a ban because it had declined to less than 15% of its historical levels.
Old Cites hands say the mistake that the European Union and United States made is that they thought a robust scientific assessment alone could get a species listed on one of the appendices of Cites (appendix II means regulated trade under quotas; appendix I, a trade ban). That was once true. But Cites has got political. Over the past decade or so, winning has become a matter of building alliances and buying votes. It’s a dirty business and, as far as one can see, the conservation nations failed to get their hands dirty.
While Japan and its allies perceived a threat to their fishing interests from a listing under the Cites treaty six months ago, the EU and the US were preoccupied until a month ago with sorting out their internal divisions. They did not grasp the strength of the alliance ranged against them in Qatar.
Japan appointed as its head of delegation the charming and ruthless Masanori Miyahara, chief of the Fisheries Agency of Japan, a veteran of a successful campaign in 1992 to stop a ban on bluefin fishing.
Everyone knew that the 13 proposals to list marine species, led by sharks and bluefin tuna, were the most controversial this year. There was an early sign of trouble when we heard the Arab League was against all the marine proposals because of the economic impact on north African fishermen. On the morning of the bluefin debate, we learnt that Japan had entertained its allies to a banquet featuring bluefin tuna the night before. When she heard that, Sylvia Earle, one of the most distinguished ocean campaigners in the United States, muttered: “Neanderthals.”
The debate itself was an ambush. Monaco put forward the proposal for a ban, then the EU gave it qualified support. But the Spanish presidency droned on unconvincingly and too long. The EU’s conservation-minded countries — Britain, Germany and Sweden — had to remain silent under daft EU protocol.
Norway, Kenya and the United States spoke for a ban. Then it became open season on the conservationists by the fishing nations. Country after country — Canada, Indonesia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Chile and Senegal — said they wanted the Atlantic tuna commission, which has allowed the bluefin to get into its present plight, to carry on managing the fish. The conservationists had no riposte to the fears Japan had stirred up in poor countries that their economies would suffer from a trade ban.
It was clear where things were going long before a ranting Libyan delegate denounced the scientific assessments as “lies” and forced a vote. Monaco’s proposal was voted down by 68 to 20, with 30 abstentions, a defeat so dire that it is unlikely to be reopened this week. Monaco’s ambassador warned that ICCAT had “a very serious responsibility” to tackle the problem of illegal fishing and set scientific quotas.
This is a disaster for the credibility of Cites. On the plus side America and Europe now back a trade ban and the pressure is on ICCAT, a fishery management body with a lamentable record, to do a better job. But that organisation’s record has led to it being called the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.
The question now is whether Japan can live up to its promise last week to crack down on illegal fishing and whether the bluefin can survive three more years until the conservation countries can organise a rematch. You have to say that the precedents are not encouraging.