While freer trade in reproducible goods and services is widely accepted as a universal good that spreads prosperity and improves prospects of international cooperation, trade in depleting commodities that sustain biodiversity and ecological balance is plainly suicidal. Flora and fauna varieties on the verge of extinction should ideally be reserved in special protection nets, safe from commercial exploitation and exchange.
Despite active campaigning by marine conservationists for years, the biennial meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Doha failed to rise to the occasion. It voted against banning international commerce in the bluefin tuna. Only 20 countries were in favour of the motion tabled by Monaco and backed by the US, while 68 states came out against interrupting trade in the giant fish, whose single unit sells for over $175,000 in high-demand markets like Japan.
Industrial-scale overfishing in the eastern Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea has plunged bluefin tuna stocks to a mere 15% of their size 50 years ago. At the current rate of exploitation, the fish may become a relic by the time the next CITES meeting takes place in a couple of years.
On the demand side, Japan is a virtual monopsony that accounts for nearly 80% of global bluefin tuna imports. This fish is a delicacy in Japan’s traditional sushi and sashimi dishes that are integral to the country’s national identity. The official position of the Japanese delegation in Doha was that stocks of bluefin tuna were declining but not close to disappearance. Hence, catching quotas was sufficient to deal with the problem. This was a reiteration of a popular domestic belief in Japanese society that denies evidence of the creature’s imminent annihilation and assumes that centuries-old dietary patterns are immortal.
The obstinate opposition to curbs on Japan’s voracious whale meat consumption came into play on the eve of the CITES meeting, with public protests in Tokyo and other cities warning the government that banning commerce in bluefin tuna would ‘threaten Japanese culture’.
Convinced about historical culinary rights on the near-extinct species, Japanese delegates in Doha conducted massive behind-the-scenes lobbying to defeat the motion for the ban. They roped in South Korea and China, openly admitting that Beijing was ‘appealing to various countries to vote against’ the proposal. After the vote, it was revealed that Beijing’s hand was decisive in persuading non-bluefin tuna exporting developing countries to join hands and sabotage the ban by a landslide.
Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun reported that China “offered extensive support for African nations in order to secure oil and mineral resources” in return for the ‘No’ vote. Cross-issue linkage between the bluefin tuna and a vote on ivory trade in Africa was also brought into the complex bargaining to tilt the balance towards the naysayers.
A supreme irony in the drama at Doha was the weak-kneed position of the EU. Brussels initially projected a united front supporting the ban on environmental grounds. But Mediterranean European exporters of bluefin tuna had contrary interests and sowed confusion within the ranks, resulting in many abstentions from the final voting in Doha.
Australia and New Zealand, exporters of the southern bluefin tuna, which was not being mooted for a ban, also weighed in on the ‘No’ side owing to anxiety that their prize catches may be next in line for a similar CITES ban in 2013. Of the 68 countries that voted against banning Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna, a large number from the Global South were likewise paralysed by apprehensions that other fish species that prop their respective coastal livelihoods would come in the line of fire if a precedent was set in Doha. The slippery slope argument worked in the numbers game at the end.
On the same day that political manoeuvring trumped ecological good sense on bluefin tuna, CITES members put paid to plans for banning trade in polar bear parts. The US delegation appealed that sale of polar bear hides was exacerbating the animal’s already plummeting numbers (only 20,000-25,000 are left today) due to climate-induced habitat loss in the Arctic. But Canada, Greenland and Norway marshalled majority opposition to this proposition on the grounds that it would hurt aboriginal hunting economies, which use the animal’s remains for food, clothing and shelter. Canadian business chimed in that extinction worries were being exaggerated by eco-fundamentalists.
The dilemma familiar since the Copenhagen disaster was played out again. Extinction-sceptics and commercial lobbies have prevailed by disputing science and rallying emotional fears. For environmentalists, the familiar ordeal now is to return to square one, mobilise public opinion in spoiler countries and alter the political balance so that dying species have a fighting chance to survive.
The author is associate professor of world politics at the OP Jindal Global University