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UN group rejects restrictions on tuna, polar bear trade

Economic crisis an undercurrent in deliberations

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post / March 19, 2010

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In the contest between commerce and conservation, a global conference this week aimed at protecting imperiled wildlife seems to be giving commerce the upper hand.

Delegates gathered in Doha, Qatar, yesterday rejected proposals pushed by the United States to impose restrictions on trade in polar bears and Atlantic bluefin tuna, despite arguments that climate change was endangering the polar bears and that bluefin tuna have been fished to precipitously low levels. The group earlier defeated a measure aimed at exposing problems in the global shark trade.

The 175 nations represented at the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora could reconsider the decisions before the meeting ends next week, but they have shown little inclination to make economic sacrifices for the sake of conservation.

CITES, which meets every 2 1/2 years to decide whether the world should curb trade in an array of coveted plants and animals, has over four decades restricted the sale of such things as rhino horns, elephant tusks, and mahogany trees from the Amazon.

This year, delegates are considering an unprecedented number of commercially valuable marine species, including eight kinds of shark and more than two dozen corals. US officials and environmentalists thought the case for protection was strong, with the prospect of climate change melting polar bears’ sea-ice habitat and the dramatic drop in the adult population of bluefin tuna.

But while the conference serves to focus public attention on the plight of vulnerable species, it does not always result in heightened environmental protections.

“Today it is clear countries are not ready to ban trade in species that are commercially important,’’ Juan Carlos Vasquez, a spokesman for the CITES secretary general, said.

The world’s economic woes added an undercurrent to this week’s deliberations. Frank Pokiak, an indigenous leader from Canada, said indigenous peoples had earned the right to organize commercial bear hunts because of their long history of environmental stewardship.

“If it wasn’t for polar bears and other wildlife that we harvest, we wouldn’t exist today,’’ Pokiak said.

A delegate from Morocco, in opposing the trade restrictions, said fishing for bluefin tuna “allows 2,000 families to survive.’’

Tom Strickland, the assistant interior secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, who left Washington last night to lead the US delegation, said the administration was “deeply disappointed’’ in the two votes but was still considering how it could press its case. Any vote can be reconsidered until the last day of the meeting, and delegates have yet to decide on new protections for red and pink corals, tigers, elephants, and several shark species.

Japan, which imports nearly 80 percent of commercially traded Atlantic bluefin, led a concerted effort to torpedo the measure. It said such restrictions are best left to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, which has set catch quotas for the fish for decades.

“We’re going to be contesting Japan and its position on this,’’ Strickland said.