It has been a tough couple weeks for marine life, regulatorily. Representatives of 175 countries gathered in Doha, Qatar, for a meeting of the U.N.’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and voted to protect Latin American tree frogs and an Iranian salamander. What they refused to add to any endangered list were bluefin tuna and several species of sharks. “CITES was always a place where countries came together and based on science, restricted trade for the sake of conservation,” said Susan Lieberman, who directs international policy for the Pew Environment Group and has attended the conference since 1989. “This time, they restricted conservation for the sake of trade.”
Key lobbying against the listings came from Asia; the Japanese will do anything to protect its insatiable appetite for bluefin and the Chinese are for reasons no one other than they can decipher still want to be able to pay loads of cash for tasteless shark fins to dress up an always bland but ritualistic (and expensive) shark fin soup. Both nations – joined by African nations and even the EU (touting concern for its fishermen) – got what they wanted.
Can you say short-term vision? Bluefin populations have declined by 82 percent in the past 40 years and will be gone for good in the very near future. The fishing fleets that the Europeans and Africans say they are trying to protect? They will be completely out of business in a few years, right alongside the bluefin. Why not look forward a few decades and try and keep a healthy fish population alive in order to provide jobs for the long-term rather than allowing fish to continue to be taken without limits thus disappear sooner, and forever.
As for the sharks, in the past 40 years, numbers of many species have declined by 99 percent. There appears to be no end in sight for China’s demand for fins.
Political will on behalf of the environment was completely absent in Doha. The height of cynicism, according to a Washington Post story? The night before the vote on bluefin the Japanese ambassador to Qatar hosted a private reception, with a menu boasting bluefin sushi and sashimi.
If you are a sushi lover with a preference for bluefin tuna, my advice is to eat up during the next couple years because the ocean’s most iconic fish is destined for extinction. (The World Wildlife Fund predicts all bluefin will be gone by 2012; currently we – mostly the Japanese – take 1 million of the big fish each year, out of a total population of 3.75 million, impossible numbers for the fish to adequately reproduce.)
The morning auction of bluefin tuna at Tokyo's Tsukiji market
There had been hope this week at a U.N. meeting of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) that bluefin might be added to the endangered species list, slowing its commercial viability. But today, with the EU opting out of voting (scared to put its tuna fishermen out of business, even after France had intimated it would vote for the ban) and the Japanese pressuring hard, the listing was voted down 68-20. (View a clip from our film-in-progress, “In Pursuit of the Last Bluefin.”)
David Jolly’s report in the NYT: Efforts to ban international trade in bluefin tuna and polar bears were rejected Thursday by a United Nations conference on endangered species, as delegates in Doha, Qatar refused to back the U.S.-backed measures.
A proposal by Monaco to extend the highest level of U.N. protection to the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin, a fish prized by sushi lovers for its fatty belly flesh, failed by a lopsided vote of 20-68, with 30 abstentions, Juan Carlos Vasquez, a spokesman for the U.N. organization, said.
“It wasn’t a very good day for conservation,” Mr. Vasquez said. “It shows the governments are not ready to adopt trade bans as a way to protect species.”
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora counts 175 member governments, though far fewer were represented for the votes in Doha. European Union nations, whose fleets are most responsible for the overfishing of the bluefin, abstained from voting.
The rejection was a defeat for environmentalists and a clear victory for the Japanese government, which had vowed to go all out to stop the measure. Japan, which consumes more than three-quarters of the Mediterranean bluefin catch, argued that the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or Iccat, an intergovernmental organization, should be responsible for regulating the stock, not the United Nations.
While there is near-universal agreement that bluefin stocks are in danger, Japan’s argument resonated with other fishing nations, which were uneasy about what would have marked the first intrusion by the convention into a major commercial fishery.
But an independent review commissioned by Iccat shows that its own record on managing the fish“ is widely regarded as an international disgrace.” The agency has presided over more than two-thirds decline in the stock since 1970 — with much of that drop coming in just the last decade with the onset of huge industrial fishing operations and tuna “ranching.” And while the organization, which has no effective enforcement mechanism, has the authority to set quotas, year after year it has set the catch above the level that its own scientists say is safe to ensure the health of the species.
Susan Lieberman, director of international policy for the Pew Environment Group, said Thursday’s vote was “ an unfortunate step backwards.” She added: “This deeply disappointing and irresponsible vote signals a bleak future for this iconic fish.”
This is the second time Japan has defeated a proposal at the conference to protect the bluefin. A similar proposal by Sweden failed at 1992 UN convention in Kyoto. While the bluefin vote was held by secret ballot, Japanese officials said this week that China and South Korea also opposed the measure, and Canada openly opposed it.
In a joint statement, Janez Potocnik, the European environment commissioner and Maria Damanaki, the commissioner for maritime affairs and fisheries, said they were “disappointed” with the outcome, and called for Iccat to “take its responsibility to ensure that stocks are managed in a sustainable way.” If no action is taken, they warned, “there is a very serious danger that the bluefin tuna will no longer exist.”
Anti-whaling ship the Bob Barker and a Japanese harpoon boat collided in icy Antarctic waters in the second major clash this year in increasingly aggressive confrontations between conservationists and the whaling fleet. The Tribune of San Louis Obispo has the best report I could find, reported by Rohan Sullivan.
No one was injured in the clash Saturday, which each side blamed on the other. The U.S.-based activist group Sea Shepherd, which sends vessels to confront the Japanese fleet each year, accused the Japanese ship of deliberately rammed the Bob Barker – named after the U.S. game show host who donated millions of dollars for the anti-whaling group to buy it.
But Japan’s Fisheries Agency said the activist boat caused the collision by suddenly approaching the harpoon vessel No. 3 Yushin Maru to throw bottles containing bad-smelling butyric acid at the Japanese ship. The agency accused Sea Shepherd of “an act of sabotage” on the Japanese expedition, noting that it is allowed under world whaling regulations as a scientific expedition. Conservationists call the annual hunt a cover for commercial whaling.
Neither side’s account could be verified. Video shot from the Bob Barker and released by Sea Shepherd shows the two ships side-by-side moving quickly through the water. The ships come closer together and the Japanese ship then appears to turn away, but its stern swings sharply toward the Bob Barker. The collision is obscured by spray, but a loud clanging noise can be heard before the vessels separate.
Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson said a 3-foot-long, 4-inch-wide (1-meter-long, 10-centimeter-wide) hole was torn in the Bob Barker’s hull, but it was above the water line and was not a threat to the ship. The Japanese agency said Yushin Maru sustained minor damage to its handrail and hull.
Bob Barker, famous for hosting “The Price is Right” for more than 30 years, said he had spoken to Watson about the collision and was happy to continue supporting the Sea Shepherd leader. “I hope he is able to bankrupt them,” Barker told The Associated Press. “He wants to sink this Japanese whaling ship economically. He wants to make it so they can’t afford to continue to business. I’m all too happy to be able to support him.”
Barker described the $5 million he donated for the purchase of the ship as “one of the best investments I’ve ever made.”
Saturday’s collision was the second this year between a Sea Shepherd boat and the Japanese fleet. On Jan. 6, a Japanese whaler struck Sea Shepherd’s high-tech speed boat Ady Gil and sheared off its nose. The Bob Barker then came to rescue the crew of the Ady Gil, which sank a day later.
Sea Shepherd and the whalers have faced off in Antarctic waters for the past few years over Japan’s annual whale hunt, with each side accusing the other of acting in increasingly dangerous ways. Sea Shepherd activists try to block the whalers from firing harpoons, and they dangle ropes in the water to try to snarl the Japanese ships’ propellers. They also hurl packets of stinking rancid butter at their rivals. The whalers have responded by firing water cannons and sonar devices meant to disorient the activists. Collisions have occurred occasionally.
On Saturday, the Bob Barker found the whaling fleet for the first time since the Ady Gil clash, Watson said. Watson said by satellite telephone on Saturday that the Bob Barker took up a position behind the Nisshin Maru – the Japanese factory ship where dead whales are hauled aboard and butchered – so the four harpoon vessels could not reach it. “The harpoon ships started circling like sharks,” Watson said from his ship, the Steve Irwin. “They were making near passes to the stern and the bow of the Bob Barker, then the Yushin Maru 3 intentionally rammed the Bob Barker.” Welders aboard the ship were patching the hole, and the Bob Barker would resume its pursuit of the whalers, Watson said.
The Japanese fisheries agency said the Bob Barker came to too close to the Yushin Maru 3, which “immediately moved away to avert a collision, but it was grazed in its tail area.” The governments of Australia and New Zealand, which have responsibility for maritime rescue in the area where the hunt is usually conducted, say the fight between the two sides is becoming increasingly dangerous.
The equation is straightforward: Too many people attempting to live permanently in the Galapagos + too few jobs to go around = a percentage are resorting to illegal economies to survive. Shark finning is one of those illegalities, and still growing. Financed by mafias based in mainland Ecuador, fins are taken – hacked off, the useless carcasses tossed overboard – and sent abroad for shark fin soup. Japanese are the biggest culprits though there are restaurants as far away as Norway and Germany, which sell the soup as well. The sad reality is that not only is it a complete waste of the shark but the fins have absolutely no taste, no nutritional value. It’s all about the show. If you can afford shark fin soup – at a business meeting, wedding, anniversary – it means you’ve got the bucks to spend on a frivolity.
You’ve seen the television ads recently promoting various shark weeks? Fear continues to sell mediocre TV, thus the boom of such shows. Another statistic: How many people are killed by sharks each year worldwide? On average, four or five. How many sharks does man kill each year, some for food, others for showy displays of money? More than seventy million. It’s the sharks that should be swimming away from us as fast as they can.
Over fishing around the globe is a huge problem. The over fishing of sharks, especially the big ones, known as “apex predators” (including the great white and reef sharks) is particularly damaging to the marine cycle since sharks maintain the populations of smaller fish that in turn feed on smaller fish that people consume commercially. Minus the predators, these sub-predators run rampant and decimate smaller fish stocks. While we may think there are unlimited numbers of fish in the sea, the more we rapaciously take the fewer species will live on into the coming decades. One more statistic? The World Wildlife Fund expects all of the fish that we know today to be gone by 2050. That’s what we should be scared of, not the very slim potential of becoming lunch while enjoying a sunny holiday at the beach. (To find a detailed chart and database of the world’s endangered sharks, visit the Shark Foundation.)
Recent attempts to bolster international fishing laws may be getting an extra push in the U.S. pending the passage of legislation now being considered in the Senate (and recently passed in the House). The legislation is designed to close most of the loopholes in the current ban on shark finning in American waters. Hopefully other nations will follow suit. (International Fisheries Law and Policy Portal.)
In the Galapagos we spent time with Godfrey Merlen, who represents San Francisco-based Wild Aid there. A twenty-year resident, he leads the group’s local efforts against illegal wildlife trafficking. Small groups of paid informants keep him alert to who in the relatively small community are shark finning (as well as poaching sea cucumbers and other at-risk species). Unfortunately once the fins are back in mainland Ecuador, even when seized by officials they often end up back in the illegal markets. Corruption is a boom business in Ecuador too.
“Over fishing of a number species is a reality in the Galapagos and in some ways – for some species, like lobsters – it’s a little bit late to talk about. We also know that thousands and thousands of sea cucumbers are recovered from illegal fisheries every year, which has had a depressing effect on the remaining population and makes management of it near impossible.
“Still, even though we know it’s going on, illegal sea cucumber gathering is an active component of the fisheries here and brings in considerable money. Just recently, at the end February, there was a capture of thirty sacks of cucumbers on the mainland, about 3,000 pounds, with an estimated value of about $200,000. This is a lot of money and a lot of sea cucumbers. Most of them came from right here in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Local fishermen say, What are we supposed to do, what are we supposed to fish? Lobster and grouper are nearly gone. So they get into the illegal market very, very simply and easily. Though the national park has patrol boats and keeps up vigilance the area is enormous and enforcement is difficult.As a result it’s been extremely easy to export illegal produce from the Galapagos.
“It’s exactly the same with the shark fin. Sharking finning, the removal of the fins and leaving the bodies to rot either in the ocean or on the shoreline, has become very common in Galapagos. Again, the fishermen say, “I have a lot of debt, I need to buy a new motor for my boat, and I don’t have any money.” Then someone comes along and says, Well, okay, I’ll lend you money but what I want is sea cucumbers, shark fins, sea lion penises, seahorses, whatever is the going mode especially in the far eastern countries where money is not a problem. Huge sums of money can be poured into a place like the Galapagos to fuel an illegal fishery. In the long run of course things can only go from bad to worse for the fishery.
“As resources decline whether through legal or illegal fisheries the resource is the basis of the fisherman’s economy. As those resources decline, incomes decline too and the cost of living keeps going up. Sooner or later the price of fuel will jump back up; currently it’s a very false $1 a gallon for diesel. What the fishermen fail to understand is that ultimately all these illegal activities combined with the lack of a sufficiently strong fisheries management, at a certain point the fishing sector of the economy will collapse.
“At the moment the fisherman finds himself in a really hot spot, partially through his own failure to appreciate the risks he’s running. He may make money today but tomorrow he will not make money. He’s already discovered that with the sea cucumber. Basically the fishermen have very little money because the resource is disappearing.”