No international rescue for the bluefin tuna
A conference on endangered species has failed to ban the international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna. Experts fear this spells the end for the endangered fish.
The conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which closed in Doha on Thursday, could not agree to a ban on international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna. No limits will be set for the fish to end up in Japanese sushi.
The rejection in the Qatari capital has already been dubbed “Tunapocalypse Now”. Five species of hammerhead shark suffered a similar fate at the summit in Doha. They didn’t make it onto CITES’ ‘Appendix I’, the list of species in which international trade is banned. Fins of these sharks are a common ingredient in Asian soup, but the rest of their body is often tossed overboard.
Japan, which annually spends hundreds of millions of euros importing bluefin tuna, emerged as the victor in Doha. North African nations such as Libya and Tunisia, whose regimes profit from the tuna trade, were also satisfied with the convention’s outcome. The big losers are the US and the EU, even if some European countries, namely France, Spain and Malta, are home to sizable tuna industries that will doubtlessly have celebrated the convention’s results.
All things considered though, everybody loses. Scientists now regard, as a real possibility, the extinction of the Atlantic blue fin tuna and some species of shark. They have predicted a sudden and irreversible drop in population levels in the coming years. This happened to the, once immense, Atlantic cod population that used to live off the North American coast in the 1990s.
Environmental interest groups that had high hopes for the Doha conference were severely disappointed. Marine biologists and others experts were unanimous in condemning the outcome.
The CITES convention was the latest chapter in a 20 year long struggle to save the bluefin tuna. It was Monaco that took the initiative to propose the introduction of a ban at this month’s Doha conference. But internal bickering among EU countries proved an obstacle to its adoption. Some countries, including Spain, France and Malta, fought limitations on tuna fishing that would hurt local industry.
In Doha, the current state of affairs within the EU led to some remarkable incidents. After an EU parliamentary motion moved the conference in the direction of a trade ban, the EU seemed unified. A powerful bloc consisting of the US and the Europeans was emerging in favour of the ban.
But it was not to be. Disputes within European circles led to a compromise that was far less stringent than the version proposed by Monaco. Meanwhile, Japan, represented by a delegation of dozens, devoted all its efforts to lobbying against the ban. “While Japan went around the world offering money, Europe was only occupied with itself,” is how Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, European parliamentarian for the left-wing liberal D66 party, summed up the Japanese lobbying efforts.
Libya was another country that vehemently opposed the ban. The nation’s representative said other countries were conspiring against developing nations, and called scientific reports on the endangered tuna lies. Nonetheless, Libya was able to force a vote on both the EU and the Monaco proposal before any debate had taken place. The conference rejected both.
In the end, Doha did not see any debate of real significance regarding the bluefin,said international fishing consultant and tuna expert, Roberto Mielgo. “Everyone who knows what they are talking about can tell you the Libyan conspiracy theory is rubbish. Developing nations will not suffer from a ban on international trade. This is about conserving a shared resource that is being stolen from us under our very eyes.”
The events in Doha seem to confirm the inability of the global community to regulate conservation of fish populations. “We are courting disaster. What is happening to the bluefin tuna now can also happen to other species of tuna and fish in general,” said Henk Brus of Atuna, an international organisation that provides information to the tuna fishing industry. According to Brus, less endangered species of tuna like the yellowfin and bigeye are next in line. Even stocks of skipjack and bonito tuna, which now account for more than half of the global catch, are at risk in the long run.
Tuna fishing and trade can only continue to exist if international conservation continues to function, Brus said. He saw a silver lining of the Doha disaster in the fact that the blue fin tuna problem had now ended up in the court of regional conservation organisations like ICCAT.
Others did not share his optimism however. “It is over for the bluefin tuna,” tuna expert Mielgo said.