, PARIS, Mar 11 – Tuna hauled from the seas for sushi, elephants poached for ivory and tigers farmed in China top the agenda at a UN-led conference starting Saturday on policing world trade in imperilled species.
Gathering over 13 days in Doha, Qatar, the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) faces tense debate on how to protect dwindling biodiversity harvested for its alluring cash value.
Until now, the forum was best known for measures on restricting commerce in charismatic species, including big cats, great apes and elephants.
But for the first time ever, a marine species — bluefin tuna — will take centre stage.
Despite self-imposed quotas, high-tech fisheries have plundered tuna stocks, depleting them by as much as 80 percent in the Mediterranean and Western Atlantic since 1970.
Led by Monaco and supported by the United States and the European Union (EU), pressure is growing for the fat, gleaming fish to be given a CITES Appendix I listing, joining iconic fauna such as the mountain gorilla and snow leopard.
"Taking on really commercially valuable marine species — trade that is worth billions of dollars — is a big step for CITES," said Sue Lieberman, policy director for the Pew Environment Group in Washington.
For many of these species, she said, "there is either no management at all, as for sharks, or serious mismanagement, like tuna."
The fishing industry has been responsible for maintaining bluefin tuna stocks since the 1960s, and yet every year the species has declined, Lieberman observed.
"Another two-to-five years of overfishing, and they won\’t recover," she said in an interview.
Japan, the main market for bluefin, strongly opposes a ban and is already lobbying to block the two-thirds vote needed for the proposal to pass. It has also threatened to ignore the ban if voted.
Other marine species are up for Appendix II status, which regulates but does not forbid cross-border trade.
They include eight species of sharks, along with red and pink coral, prized for jewellery.
"Up to 73 million sharks are killed every year for the shark fin trade," said Demian Chapman, assistant science director at the Institute for Ocean Conservation at Stonybrook University in New York.
At the last CITES meeting in 2007, the coral and two of the sharks — spiny dog and porbeagle — failed to gain protection. But their continuing decline may convince some states to reverse course this time, conservationists hope.
Challenging a nine-year moratorium on ivory trade after a once-off sale of stockpiled stocks by four other African nations in 2008, Tanzania and Zambia have put in a plea to do the same again.
China and Japan, the main markets for elephant tusk, will likely favour the measure.
But two dozen other African range countries, with the possible support of Europe, will seek to extend the ban to 20 years.
Unlike most UN negotiating forums, the alignment of national interests can shift from one proposal to the next.
The United States and Europe find common cause on tuna but differ, for example, on the polar bear, which is legally hunted by indigenous peoples of the Arctic who often sell the bear\’s skin.
China, meanwhile, will find itself uncomfortably in the spotlight on several issues.
The forum will consider a resolution to condemn tiger farming, practiced only in China. The world\’s most populous nation is also a top market for ivory and shark fin.
For most proposals, only a handful of countries are directly affected, creating a situation in which parties exchange favours and votes — or more, according to several CITES veterans.
"There is corruption, and of course there are governments that are corrupt," said Lieberman, a former US negotiator who has been involved with CITES for more than 20 years.
Even so, important decisions do get made, if not always for the right reasons, she added: "There is a common ground between the trade interests who \’get it\’ and the conservationists who \’get it\’."
One of the problems, though, is unequal levels of enforcement.
The main importing countries for species under threat — Europe, the US, Japan and China — "have customs regimes that work," said Juan Carlos Vasquez, an official at the CITES Secretariat.
"Now we need to work more with the provider countries. It\’s too late when you have punished a party because the animals or plants have already been killed," he told AFP by phone.