Fishy business. How the elephants’ success hurt the bluefin tuna.

Tuna getting ready for the table

Tuna getting ready for the table

Published by: The Economist, March 26, 2010.

AS OLD hands tell it, protecting a threatened species used to be a relatively straightforward affair at the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Government officials would turn up at the triennial meetings and, after listening to advice from scientists, conservationists and their own environment ministries, were likely to agree to a “listing”.

This year at its meeting in Doha, everything changed. Seemingly alarmed by the large number of proposals to list marine species, Japan turned up in force. Japan’s 30-strong delegation was as big as the one from America. And thanks to its “capacity building” efforts—in other words, providing finance for projects in developing countries—Japan was also able to fly in a dozen or so fisheries ministers, mostly from Africa, to ensure their participation—and, no doubt, their votes.

CITES has become a battleground because it is a strong convention. It is one of the few places where global environmental laws are made. It can ban trade in a species (an Appendix 1 listing), or limit that trade so that it has to be carried out sustainably using permits (Appendix 2). As a consequence, says Sue Mainka, head of the delegation from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an environmental group, the people who come to the meetings are changing. Governments are increasingly sending delegates from trade and fisheries ministries, rather than environment and wildlife officials. Industry groups have also expanded their lobbying efforts. And the receptions to woo delegates are changing: Japan hosted two events where bluefin tuna, a critically endangered species, was pointedly served. (Your correspondent tried to attend one but was asked to leave because the press were excluded.)

All of which helps explain why bluefin tuna, some 80% of which is consumed in Japan, was refused a listing in a vote on March 19th, even though scientists agree that it qualifies for Appendix 1. One of the arguments given by Japan and its allies for rejecting the proposal was that there is already an organisation that exists to manage bluefin—the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). But this is something of a red herring, as it were. An Appendix 1 listing would not prevent ICCAT from managing the fishery or setting local fishing quotas. Rather, it would reduce demand and thus provide the restraint on tuna fishing that ICCAT has failed to.

Behind the scenes, there was also a feeling among some countries that the European Union (which supported an Appendix 1 listing for bluefin) would benefit unfairly, because its fishermen would still be allowed to trade bluefin between EU countries. Such trade is technically domestic and does not therefore fall under CITES. To complicate matters, many observers think the EU is one of the villains at ICCAT. According to Masanori Miyahara, chief counsellor from the fisheries agency of Japan, “The EU caused this mess.” Japan seems to think the EU needs to try harder to make ICCAT work.

Bluefin was not the only sea creature which lost out. Red and pink coral, a group of deep-sea species that have suffered from years of over-exploitation, were turned down for an Appendix 2 listing. A joint American-European proposal would have required states that export items made from the corals to certify that the trade was sustainable and issue permits. Japan, once more, was against it.

Sharks did badly too. The main committee of CITES discussed a group of them, including the hammerhead, oceanic whitetip, porbeagle and spiny dogfish. There was wide scientific support for most of them to get an Appendix 2 listing. In a close-run vote on March 23rd, all except the porbeagle failed. Discussions continued as The Economist went to press.

“I think the Japanese are against any further inclusions of marine species into CITES,” observed Sue Lieberman of the Pew Environment Group. “We look on a case-by-case basis, but as a general principle we are not convinced CITES measures can help,” says Mr Miyahara. Regional fisheries-management organisations such as ICCAT are a better solution, he argues.

Elephants remain

Japan is sceptical about CITES because of the way it has been applied to elephants and other land animals. Even when endangered populations recover, it has proved difficult to reduce or remove CITES protection. After intense lobbying by other governments and wildlife charities both Tanzania and Zambia were denied applications to move their elephant populations from Appendix 1 to 2.

“Fisheries have to change in accordance with fish reserves, and CITES is not flexible,” says Mr Miyahara. Sunset clauses on CITES listings, as well as formal links between CITES and regional fishery bodies such as ICCAT, would help Japan overcome its objections, he adds. This means governments and wildlife campaigners have just under three years to adjust their campaign strategies accordingly, if they hope to protect more marine species at the next meeting, in 2013.

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