Caribbean Conservation Treaty Spawned

By Adam M. Roberts

Hundreds of species in the Wider Caribbean Region-including the American crocodile, Hawksbill sea turtle, Brown pelican, Cuba Sandhill crane, St. Lucia parrot, Spectacled bear, Giant armadillo, Cuvier's beaked  whales, bottle-nosed dolphins and corals-have gained new protection under a Protocol to the Cartagena Convention concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW). When twenty-eight nations signed SPAW in Kingston, Jamaica in January 1990, they did so "conscious of the grave threat posed by ill-conceived development options to the integrity of the marine and coastal environment of the Wider Caribbean Region."

Unlike other multi-lateral conservation treaties such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), SPAW not only protects species by prohibiting trade in wildlife, but also by prohibiting fishing, hunting or harvesting of threatened and endangered species, and by calling on Parties to designate protected areas in their sovereign jurisdiction to sustain "the natural resources of the Wider Caribbean Region." Parties shall, for example, "regulate activities, to the extent possible, that could have harmful effects on the habitats of the species." The protected region under SPAW extends throughout the marine environment of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and areas off the Atlantic coast of Florida.

According to an analysis of SPAW by the United Nations Environment Programme, "248 out of the 481 species covered by, or proposed to be covered by the SPAW Protocol are also currently regulated under CITES." This means that 233 out of the 481 species addressed under SPAW gain international protection that would not exist were it not for this valuable Treaty.

Nine countries that signed the Protocol officially have ratified it: Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the Netherlands, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Panama, Venezuela, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago. These Parties have historically advocated weak positions on wildlife conservation and endangered species protection. At the most recent meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES in Nairobi, Kenya, the Cuban delegation worked tirelessly (though, thankfully, unsuccessfully) to reopen the international trade in hawksbill turtle shell at the behest of Japan, the primary market for products made from turtle shell, called "bekko." The representative from the Dominican Republic spoke out in favor of this failed proposal. Cuba and St. Vincent and the Grenadines also spoke out in support of a Japanese proposal at CITES to downlist gray whales. Without the involvement and vote of the United States in SPAW there may be no strong conservation voice during the deliberations of the Parties to SPAW. In fact, Cuba is scheduled to host the first important meeting of the Parties this September.

The Treaty was originally transmitted to the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 20, 1993 and has lain dormant there for eight years now. Then Secretary of State Warren Christopher testified: "All concerned agencies in the Executive Branch strongly support early ratification of the Protocol....I recommend, therefore, that the Protocol Concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife in the Wider Caribbean Region be transmitted to the Senate as soon as possible for its advice and consent to ratification...."

Now, there is an immediate imperative for the Senate to give its advice and consent to ratification to enable the United States to have a vote during the Parties' Havana Conference. The State Department, which sends to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a letter every two years outlining the Administration's Treaty priorities, has assured us that SPAW will be toward the top of that priority list. Unfortunately, other, more controversial Treaties, are slowing down the submission of that letter.

The looming question is whether the Foreign Relations Committee will agree to move the Treaty under the new leadership of Senator Joseph Biden (D,DE), who has assisted nobly in saving dolphins from tuna nets.  If it does, will the Senate approve it, will the President ratify it, and will it be submitted to the depositary government, Colombia, in time for the US to have a vote during the first meeting?

Before the historic Party switch of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords, the Chairman of the Committee was Republican Jesse Helms. On May 15, 2001, New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith sent a letter to Helms encouraging swift action on the Treaty. "The SPAW Protocol will enhance substantially the ability of nations in the Caribbean region to protect indigenous wildlife and the habitats on which these species depend," wrote Senator Smith. The new Senate leadership should listen to Bob Smith and others in support of the SPAW Protocol and approve it without delay.


Captions:

Seals are one of the many animals protected under SPAW, Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife. (Kip Evans/NMFS)

Bottlenosed Dolphins, the largest of the beaked dolphins, inhabit shallow, coastal waters, and have been traded live from Cuba, the US and Mexico to Portugal, Spain, Honduras, and elsewhere. (J. Stafford-Deitshch)

Vibrantly plumed scarlet macaws are subjected to illegal international trade and are at risk from the destruction of their forest homes. (Dave G. Houser/CORBIS)

Endangered ocelots, mainly hunted for their fur, inhabit jungles, marshes, and tropical rainforests from the United States, through Mexico and Central America, down through Argentina. (Tom Brakefield/CORBIS)