x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

GCC catches up in race to save wildlife

Two-week conference in Doha will discuss the United Nations-backed treaty regulating international plant and animal trade.

DOHA // It is not just depleted marine species like the bluefin tuna and hammerhead shark that will be in the spotlight at next month's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) here. Qatar and the Gulf are also set to receive well-deserved attention. Until the late 1990s, the region saw heavy traffic in caviar, leathers and various birds of prey, according to Susan Lieberman, the director of international policy for the Pew Environment Group, the environmental arm of the US-based Pew Charitable Trusts. But a crackdown in recent years, particularly by the UAE, has transformed local enforcement.

"I've been working on Cites issues for 23 years," said Ms Lieberman, "and it's a pleasure to see how much the GCC countries have improved to the point of really being able to stand up and host a meeting and show themselves to the conservation world." The Doha meet is the 15th Cites gathering since the convention was first approved by 175 member states in 1975, but the first in the Middle East and North Africa region. The two-week conference to discuss the United Nations-backed treaty regulating international plant and animal trade begins on March 13.

Some 2,000 delegates from 170 countries will vote on 42 proposals on various plant and animal trade issues, involving polar bears, elephants, red coral, and a pet newt species the government of Iran is looking to regulate. A two-thirds majority is needed to pass the proposals, which must then be adopted by all member states. One hot-button topic is the proposed ban on bluefin tuna, the source of the highest-grade sushi and sashimi. Cites is known mainly for protecting African gorillas and Asian tigers. Marine protections are a recent phenomenon, and if approved, the bluefin ban would be the first attempt to tackle a major commercial industry.

Last year the World Wildlife Fund said the bluefin, which can weigh up to 500kg and is fished mainly in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, could be extinct as early as 2012. Bluefin populations have declined more than 80 per cent since 1970, according to Pew. As a result, the fish's value has skyrocketed. In January, a single bluefin tuna sold for Dh650,000 in Tokyo. Japan consumes more than 40,000 tonnes of bluefin every year, and the price will continue to rise as long as the tuna population plummets.

An agreement signed last November prods governments to regulate their bluefin catch, but the Cites proposal, initiated by Monaco, aims to temporarily ban all trade. Scientists estimate five to 10 years for bluefin populations to recover, allowing trade to resume. "We really have to put the brakes on it and let this fish recover," said Ms Lieberman. "It will be an uphill battle; the chances are good, but there's going to be opposition."

The European Union has come close to supporting the ban, but the fishing nations Spain, France, Italy, Cyprus, Greece and Malta voiced opposition last autumn. In the past week, France and Italy have reversed their positions and come out in support of the ban. France's total bluefin take is often the world's highest. Along with backing from the UK and the US, European support may lead to the proposal's adoption.

Several other proposals aim to regulate the shark trade. Some 73 million sharks are killed each year worldwide, primarily for shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy served at weddings and banquets. Hammerhead sharks, which are native to the Gulf and were added to the World Conservation Union's endangered species list in 2008, are particularly desirable because their large fins create a thick, rich soup. A kilogram of their fins can sell for as much as Dh35,000 in China.

Their numbers have declined 99 per cent in the Mediterranean in the past two centuries, and significantly in the Gulf, in part because shark fishing is not regulated in international waters. "If you bought a ship and you want to go out fishing sharks on the high seas," said Ms Lieberman, "there is no limit to how many you can kill." If adopted, the regulations would not set an absolute limit on shark catches, but force governments to scientifically certify the sustainability of their quota.

The environmental costs of bluefin or hammerhead extinction are not entirely clear, mainly because of scientists' limited knowledge of deep-sea species. Catch quotas are often "guesswork," according to Richard L Haedrich, an ocean biogeography professor at Memorial University in Canada. What is clear is that the loss would be significant. "Every time the top predator is eliminated it throws off the entire balance of the ecosystem," said Ms Lieberman, explaining that the absence of the apex predator often leads to a depletion of many species further down the food chain.

"People here are still very dependent on the sea for food," she added. "Sharks are worth a lot more alive than in soup." @Email:dlepeska@thenational.ae