A toothless West watches as Japan guts fish stocks. By: Charles Clover

Published by The Sunday Times, March 28, 2010

The scalloped hammerhead is a pretty cool shark. You could learn to love it. It does cool things. Its eyes are placed to give it 360-degree vision. It can detect an electrical signal as weak as half a billionth of a volt from the muscle contractions of its prey. It gives birth to live young after the age of 17. And it is one of the few animals on Earth that actually tans, like we do.

The one thing that may not surprise you is that scalloped hammerhead fins are among the most prized for the Chinese delicacy known as shark fin soup. “Finning” remains one of the most disgusting fishing activities. Sharks are caught, their fins are chopped off and they are dumped back alive into the ocean to suffer horrible deaths.

An astonishing 2.7m hammerhead sharks (both scalloped and smooth) are ripped from their coral reefs and sea mounts each year to supply the Asian market, and consequently the hammerhead population has declined by 83% in the northwest Atlantic over the past 25 years.

It did not seem unreasonable for the tiny Pacific republic of Palau — along with the United States — to propose last week that countries exporting hammerhead fins should be forced to monitor this repellent trade and issue export permits only after ensuring that the numbers caught did not threaten the species’ survival. Nor did it seem unreasonable to suggest — as Palau and the European Union did at the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Doha, Qatar — that our own warm-blooded, slow-growing porbeagle shark should be made subject to the same rules. After all, porbeagle catches have declined by 80% in the northeast Atlantic since the second world war.

In all, there were 13 marine proposals at Cites this year — more than at any time in the past 35 years and a measure of the growing concern about the goings-on in our oceans.

Other species up for protected status include oceanic whitetip shark, spiny dogfish (the rock salmon found in fish and chips), red coral and bluefin tuna. Many people felt that the hammerhead and porbeagle had the highest chance of success, not just because they were cute, but because the proposals before Cites were asking countries only to monitor their populations and to try not to wipe them out. No such luck: an alliance of fishing nations led by Japan voted down all 13 proposals. It was the conservation equivalent of Pearl Harbor.

Japan’s case was intellectually weak: it said it did not want any commercially traded marine species to be regulated under the endangered species convention, though, in fact, seahorses, sturgeon and eels already are. What the bemused delegations of the EU, the US and other defenders of the dwindling fish species had not realised, until the voting onslaught began, was the strength of the global forces Japan would muster on the side of a poor argument.

What galled the people trying to find a bar in “dry” Qatar to drown their sorrows after the vote on Thursday was that, by the old rules, they had done everything right. The scientific case had stacked up: every scrap of evidence pointed to the fact that shark populations were declining. But the world has changed since 1973, the year Cites was founded, when a nod from the West and a good scientific report could quickly get a species listed.

Somewhere along the line we have lost both our clout and the tacit understanding that science, not politics, should determine the common good. The paradox is that there has never been so much public awareness of environmental problems. However, the global process of dealing with them has been corroded by domestic political agendas, including the reluctance of China to agree to external monitoring of what it sees as its internal affairs (which all but sank last year’s Copenhagen climate conference).

It could all get worse. We heard last week that Japan — with American support — is tilting for an end to the 23-year-old moratorium on killing the great whales. Apparently, Native American tribes also want to exercise their ancestral right to kill whales, and the US is snuggling up to Japan to let them do so.

When will this shortsightedness end? It certainly can’t go on indefinitely. In my view, Japan’s victory in Doha was an enormous diplomatic mistake, based on prejudice rather than principle, and it has not gone unnoticed by the public. Japan’s government knows that, sooner or later, it simply has to address the issue of sustainability, but nobody wants to be the first to change such a hoary plank of foreign policy as Japan’s right to eat all the fish.

What happened in Doha is like Pearl Harbor because it is a challenge that cannot be ignored. It is patently absurd to have a global convention that regulates trade in more than 30,000 endangered species, but not fish. That must be pointed out at the highest political level. Alliances must be built, weapons forged.

If we have to boycott Mitsubishi for trading in bluefin or sanction a Japanese airline for carrying it, then so be it. Next time the West must play the game like we mean it. And as the rematch will be in less than three years’ time, we need to start mobilising now.

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