Science Sacrificed at CITES

At the outset, the 15th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) stood to be historic and precedent setting. Never before had so many commercially valuable and highly exploited marine species been proposed for listing in the CITES appendices. From the bluefin tuna unsustainably killed for decades largely to satisfy demand from Japan, to several shark species killed by the millions each year primarily for their fins to make soup, to corals mined from the world’s oceans to make jewelry­­ - they all needed a lifeline to stop or stem international trade and to slow or stop their continued decline toward extinction.

That lifeline was never thrown. At the two week Conference of the Parties, held in Doha, Qatar, not a single marine species proposal was approved. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence justifying each proposal, one after another was defeated, and it became abundantly clear that protection for commercially valuable species inhabiting the ocean, which are eaten or worn, despite their imperiled status, was not to be achieved. Politics, palates, economics and vanity ruled the day; science and conservation did not.

Those countries which eat or profit from the commercial exploitation of the marine species, namely Japan and China, joined forces and used their influence to secure the votes that denied these species much needed protections from international trade. Accusations of corruption and vote-buying were common themes heard throughout the meeting. Japan led many of the anti-conservation campaigns. It wined and dined delegates at several posh receptions including one on the eve of the tuna vote where bluefin was served. Not surprisingly, tossing aside the facts, the bluefin tuna proposal was resoundingly defeated. China, a country with a ravenous appetite for shark fin soup, led efforts to reject the shark proposals while Japan, Tunisia, and Morocco ensured that the red and pink coral proposal was rejected.

Bluefin tuna populations have declined by nearly 75 percent in the East Atlantic and Mediterranean since 1957 with 60 percent of that decline in the past decade while, in the West Atlantic, the species declined by over 82 percent since 1970. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which ostensibly manages the species, is so ineffective that an independent review panel describes its management of bluefin fisheries as an “international disgrace” and made other recommendations promptly ignored by ICCAT. For example, despite scientists recommending in 2006 a total catch of 15,000 tons or less in the Mediterranean, ICCAT’s 2007 limit was 29,500 tons, yet an estimated 60,000 tons of tuna were caught. Despite this incompetence, many countries rejected the bluefin proposal claiming that ICCAT alone should regulate bluefin fisheries.

Hammerhead sharks have been decimated by the fin trade with population declines of 83 percent in the northwest Atlantic Ocean and 99.9 and over 85 percent in the Mediterranean and in Australian waters, respectively. The reduction in oceanic whitetip sharks, also captured for its fins, includes declines of 60-70 percent in the northwest and western central Atlantic Ocean, 99 percent in the Gulf of Mexico, and 90 percent in the central Pacific Ocean. The porbeagle shark, killed for its fins and meat, has declined by 80 to more than 99 percent.

The demand for pink and red corals by the jewelry industry is decimating the few remaining populations. Coral reproductive polyps have been reduced by 80-90 percent while the harvest of corals has declined by 60-80 percent since the 1980s. As the shallow coral populations are being mined, collectors are exploiting deep water colonies driving the species, already threatened by warming oceans and destructive fishing practices, closer to extinction.

For a convention that is intended to base its decisions on science, the decision to favor profits over protection and consumption over conservation does not bode well for the future of CITES. Since they couldn’t challenge the science, Japan, China and their allies concocted a variety of baseless claims to justify rejection of the proposals. In the end, even officials of the CITES Secretariat expressed concern about how pervasive politics and economics had become in the CITES decision-making process. Outgoing Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers explained to the Associated Press that “the minute money gets involved, everything is different” causing “countries that consistently vote for conservation (to) then vote the other way.”

Despite global warming literally melting the habitat of this ice-dependent species from under its paws and expert predictions that the species won’t survive the complete loss of summer sea ice, the polar bear was also denied a lifeline. With more than half of Canada’s polar bear population in decline and with its international commercial export of an average of 300 bears per year between, the U.S. led effort was intended to provide another layer of protection to this iconic species. Logically, ending commercial trade is far easier than solving global warming, yet few countries thought that the cumulative impact of international trade on the polar bear justified supporting the proposal.

The news from Doha, fortunately, was not all bad. A U.S. proposal to delist the bobcat was again rejected because of concerns in distinguishing its pelts and products from more imperiled felid species. Increased protection was approved for the Baker’s and Guatemalan spiny-tailed iguanas, tree frogs, the Kaiser’s newt, and the Santanas beetle threatened by over-collection for the international pet trade. The Brazilian rosewood and Palo Santo trees, endemic to South America, were awarded Appendix II listing in order to regulate the trade in wood products and/or oils used to manufacture high-end perfume. Listing was also approved for several plant species endemic to Madagascar. CITES parties also agreed to increase efforts to protect or improve management of rhinos, saiga and tibetan antelope, humphead wrasse, tigers, sharks and stingrays and to further study the trade of other species, including Asian snakes.

Proposals to downlist Tanzania and Zambia’s elephant populations from Appendix I to Appendix II and to permit a one-time sale of stockpiled ivory were also rejected due to concerns about inadequate law enforcement in Tanzania, the potential for illicit ivory to be sourced through Zambia, and the need for more time to assess the impact of a 2008 ivory sale on elephant poaching rates. While the CITES Secretariat denies any link between one-time ivory sales and elephant poaching rates, compelling evidence demonstrates a clear link between the sales and an escalation in elephant poaching which now claims more than 38,000 elephants annually.

The U.S. must be praised for leading the effort to increase CITES protections for the polar bear and, with Palau, for seeking the listing of hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks. While the U.S. voted in favor of many of the proposals that passed, it proposed the bobcat delisting, supported Zambia’s elephant ivory trade proposal, and voted against CITES protections for the spiny dogfish. To its credit, though secret ballots were used for all of the controversial proposals, it made public its vote unlike most countries that preferred secrecy to accountability.

In the end, the potential for this meeting to set a new precedent for conservation, was replaced with disappointment and concern for the future of CITES. With a new Secretary-General soon to take the helm, only time will tell if he can steer CITES down a path where species threatened by international trade will receive the protection they so desperately need.