Polar bear, bluefin tuna trade bans rejected

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Proposed international trade bans on polar bears and Atlantic bluefin tuna failed to pass on Thursday at a 175-nation meeting aimed at protecting endangered species.

The United States favored both bans and was disappointed in the vote, but held out hope for passage of a resolution that would make climate change a factor in future decisions by the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES.

The meeting of CITES in Doha, Qatar, will consider the climate change resolution along with trade protection for about 40 species -- including sharks, coral and elephants -- during its two-week conference ending on March 25.

Polar bears are under pressure from the melting of their icy Arctic habitat, and are listed by the United States as a threatened species for that reason. The primary exporter of polar bears is Canada, which has recently scaled back the number of hunting permits for the bear.

While CITES uses trade restrictions to protect species at risk, Tom Strickland, assistant U.S. Interior secretary, said that climate change will have to be taken into account and that polar bears are the first species to need this consideration.

“The polar bear was the first canary in the coal mine,” Strickland said of the climate change impact on the animal.

“I think we’re going to find at every CITES meeting from here on out that we’ll be looking at species and their vulnerability in terms of the effect that climate change has had on them, whether it’s drought or rising sea levels” or other ecosystem changes, he said.

One-year-old polar bear Ikor plays at Sapporo Maruyama Zoo in Sapporo, northern Japan, January 18, 2010. The male cubs were born on December 9, 2008. REUTERS/Issei Kato


Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the CITES vote is not the end of the story for the bear.

“The ironic thing is that all the countries of the conference acknowledge that global warming is posing a huge challenge for this species,” Wetzler said. “When you have a species threatened by global warming, it only makes sense to reduce all the other stresses, including hunting.”

Strickland blamed the failure to pass a trade ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna on pressure from commercial interests in Japan and inaction by other regulatory bodies, notably the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).

“The science is compelling, the statistics are dramatic, that this species is in a catastrophic decline,” Strickland said at a telephone news briefing from Washington.

Stocks of Atlantic bluefin tuna, prized as a delicacy in Japan, have plunged more than 80 percent since 1970, according to CITES. Japan imports about 80 percent of the catch.

A single fish can weigh up to 1,430 pounds (650 kg) and fetch more than $100,000. The fish is found in the north Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Mexico.

“The abject failure of governments here at CITES to protect Atlantic bluefin tuna spells disaster for its future and sets the species on a pathway to extinction,” said Greenpeace International Oceans Campaigner Oliver Knowles.

France, Italy and Spain catch most of the tuna consumed by the global market.

In 2009, a quota of 19,950 tons of tuna was set by ICCAT, but many fish are caught live in nets, transferred to farms and fattened before slaughter.

“The market for this fish is just too lucrative and the pressure from fishing interests too great, for enough governments to support a truly sustainable future for the fish,” said Susan Lieberman, director of international policy for the Pew Environment Group.

Additional reporting by Regan Doherty in Dubai; Editing by Xavier Briand