Fish deserve as much protection as rhinos and tigers. By: Frank Pope

Published by The Times, March 26, 2010.

When is an endangered species not an endangered species? When it lives in the sea, apparently. Despite continuing carnage in the ocean, marine creatures were refused any protection at the United Nations conference on trade in wildlife that ended yesterday in Doha, Qatar.

Tigers, rhinos and elephants are all better protected after the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). But hammerhead sharks, bluefin tuna and other marine species should be quaking in their skins. For when it comes to fish, the world has decided that scientific evidence of imminent demise is not reason enough to defend them against overexploitation.

The conflict between trade and conservation is nothing new, but it is pretty well established that if you let trade in wildlife run rampant, soon there will be nothing left to sell. That is why the UN set up Cites in the first place.

So why did fish get such a raw deal? Is it that we care less about life that is so very different from us? Do the emotionless eyes of fish leave our hearts cold? Is it an extension of the convenient myth that fish feel no pain?

The truth is far more shocking. All fingers of blame point directly at Japan. The high value of bluefin tuna — a single specimen can reach £112,000 — led it to orchestrate a full-scale campaign against proposals to ban trade in the species. Diplomatic missions were sent to developing nations to bully them into agreeing with Japan’s conviction that fish cannot be endangered.

That way of thinking is grounded in ignorance. The oceans long seemed infinite in their capacity to produce such riches, and any sign that this was not so was hidden by our inability to peer into the depths. Science has now stripped back the veil and revealed the extent of the depletion. It is this science that Japan and its allies have chosen to not to see.

Unfortunately for life in the sea, Japan’s campaign made waves far beyond the bluefin. Sharks are in dire trouble thanks to China’s appetite for using their fins in soup. About 73 million sharks are killed each year as a result, and sharks don’t reproduce fast. But far from favouring a ban, nations voted against even the most basic monitoring of the trade.

Red and pink corals have now all but vanished from the Mediterranean and are being stripped from the Pacific, but proposals to control that trade were also swept away.

Fish don’t recognise borders and boundaries. Yet one nation, Japan, by its cynical use of political power is robbing the world of a shared resource.

Frank Pope     is ocean correspondent

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