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Fishy Conservation Efforts

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NAIROBI – If you happen to be a salamander known as the Iranian Kaiser spotted newt, chances are that things may be looking up. Governments at the recent meeting in Doha of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted for a trade ban on Iranian Kaisers, alongside tougher protection for a host of land-living creatures.

But if you are a blue-fin tuna of the western Atlantic stock, your mood will be decidedly more pessimistic. It is a similar story for several species of shark, including the oceanic white-tip, scalloped hammerhead, and the great and spiny dogfish. Despite strong scientific evidence showing sharp declines in the populations of all three, every proposal for tougher trade controls on these marine species – along with more than 30 species of coral – failed to secure the necessary two-thirds majority.

In the case of the western Atlantic stock of blue-fin tuna, several countries argued that the existing management body – the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) – is best placed to manage the stock. Others who proposed tougher trade rules were not convinced – and with good reason.

Stocks of this highly prized fish have declined by up to 80% since the dawn of industrialized fishing, and this has been on ICCAT’s watch. In the case of sharks and rays, a recent survey indicates that close to one-third of the 64 ocean-living species are on the verge of extinction.

Their decline is linked to over-exploitation of other once-common species. For example, spiny dogfish is partly substituting for cod in many European fish-and-chip shops. Sharks, too, are suffering from rapidly rising demand for shark-fin soup, which is considered a delicacy in many parts of Asia.

But saving endangered and near-endangered species is not just about conservation; it is also about defending millions of people’s livelihoods, which depend on healthy oceans. Today’s marine environment is truly under siege. When the explorer John Cabot sailed off the coast of Newfoundland more than 500 years ago, vast shoals of cod slowed down his ships; crews could lower buckets over the side and fill them with fish.

By 1992, however, over-fishing had forced the total closure of this once highly productive fishery, and, despite all efforts, Newfoundland’s Grand Banks has never recovered. Similarly, over-fishing of sharks in the Caribbean has triggered a rise in octopus and a drastic drop in spiny lobsters and scallops – two major sources of revenue for neighboring coastal communities.

The outcome at CITES has brought into sharp relief increasing tensions between industrial and environmental interests, as if these were diametrically opposed. Surely a twenty-first-century fisherman does not want to see the basis of his or her living degraded and destroyed, nor does a modern conservationist want to ring-fence the environment and stop people from making a living.

So if governments want existing agreements to rule the waves, they must start acting on the sobering science and real-world numbers. For example, with respect to sharks, existing sanctions against “fining” under Regional Fisheries Management Organizations should be enforced, backed up by an independent system of on-board observers to ensure that trawlers comply. Moreover, an international action plan for sharks, including a ceiling on catches, should be created. And proper fishing methods that catch only target species should be used, with others caught accidentally as so-called by-catch returned to the sea alive.

Where fisheries agreements are not succeeding, conservation agreements must be tried and applied. After all, these are not competing regulatory regimes, but complimentary ones.

In the case of the western Atlantic blue-fin tuna, the ball is now firmly back in ICCAT’s court. Governments that support the ICCAT option must now prove that it is up to the job. They have three years to do so, before CITES next meets in Thailand. If there is no dramatic action and improvement, governments should instead give CITES, as a well established conservation and trade agreement, a chance to reverse the species’ current plight.

Blue-fin tuna is heading for commercial, if not outright, extinction, as are a host of other economically and ecologically important marine species. They are swimming in the last-chance lagoon. But so, too, could be the organizations that have presided over a breathtaking collapse of so many fisheries and left a once-bountiful marine environment – and the lives and livelihoods of many fishermen – damaged and degraded in their wake.

Achim Steiner is UN Under-Secretary General and UN Environment Program (UNEP) Executive DirectorCopyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

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