Deep divisions threaten species


A SINGLE Atlantic bluefin tuna can weigh up to 650 kilogrammes, swim at up to 70 kilometres an hour, and fetch more than €70,000. A 5-centimetre piece of its fattiest part, “otoro” in Japanese, can set a diner back more than 2,000 yen (€16) in a Tokyo restaurant. It is the most prized among tuna for sushi or sashimi in a country which consumes 80 per cent of the world catch.

But this week, unfortunately, Japan did its best to block a safety line being thrown to this magnificent but threatened species whose stocks in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean have declined by 60 per cent over the last decade. Leading a coalition of developing countries at the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Qatar, Japan succeeded in defeating (72-43) a proposal from Monaco to ban trade from these stocks. The EU’s compromise, to delay the ban a year, was also defeated.

And the meeting turned its back on a global trade ban on polar bears whose numbers are also dwindling – the 2007 US Geological Survey estimated that the population will fall by 70 per cent in 45 years as their sea-ice habitat melts. Indigenous leaders from Canada mobilised support by arguing their peoples had earned the right to organise commercial bear hunts because of their long history of environmental stewardship. “If it wasn’t for polar bears and other wildlife that we harvest, we wouldn’t exist today,” Frank Pokiak insisted.

Cites, representing 175 states, meets every two and a half years to consider global curbs on the trade in an array of coveted plants and animals, and over 40 years has restricted the sale of such things as rhino horns, elephant tusks and mahogany trees in the Amazon.

But commercial imperatives trumped the advice of science once again, as Japan’s prime minister Yukio Hatoyama afterwards seemed to acknowledge: “It’s good that tuna prices won’t rise for now”. Japan, already a pariah for its dogged support for whaling, says it is willing to accept lower quotas for bluefin tuna but insists they should come from regional fishery organisation, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat), which currently regulates the trade. Critics complain it has been extremely ineffective in maintaining stocks.

A sponsor of bans on both the trade in Atlantic tuna and polar bears, US representatives are rightly disappointed but still hold out hope for passage of an important resolution that could make climate change a consideration in future decisions by Cites. It will be considered along with trade protection for about 40 species – including sharks, coral and elephants – over the rest of the two-week conference that runs until March 25th.

As assistant US interior secretary, Tom Strickland argues, climate change will increasingly have to be taken into account at every Cites meeting because of drought, rising sea levels or other ecosystem changes. Polar bears should have been the first species to need this consideration, he says. “The polar bear was the first canary in the coal mine.”