A Collapse of Governance

The U.N. has once again failed to act to protect such endangered species as Atlantic bluefin tuna.

I always thought that a species was endangered if the organism’s population plummeted to a fraction of historic levels.  In California, the scourge of DDT and PCBs led to the listing of the California Brown Pelican on the federal endangered species list.  With listing comes additional protection. Recently, the Brown Pelican recovered enough to be taken off the list.

But last week a United Nations body came up with a new definition of endangered species that simply boggles the mind.

The UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) largely sat on its hands last week and evidently has decided that a species can’t get protection on trade if it swims in the ocean.  Polar bears?  Feel free to trade their pelts and organs under the guise of cultural preservation.  Atlantic bluefin tuna?  That is some serious sashimi.  Shark, except for the porbeagle, still have no catch limits.  The UN CITES nations rejected regulations on scalloped hammerhead, oceanic whitetip and spiny dogfish sharks. More shark fin soup for all (check out WildAid’s PSA featuring Yao Ming).

Perhaps Stuart Beck, Palau’s ambassador to the UN, said it best: “We will continue to protect sharks from eradication by the decadent and cruel process of shark finning. I am sure that, properly prepared, bald eagle is delicious.  But, as civilized people, we simply do not eat it.”

Once again, commerce has trumped the preservation of endangered species. Whether it is sushi lovers insatiable appetite for Atlantic bluefin or the continued barbaric culinary tradition of shark fin soup, the need to make a buck makes our oceans fair game for unregulated harvesting of its far too limited bounty.

This week’s inaction demonstrates again that the UN multi-national environmental agreements seldom work well and often don’t work at all.  For CITES, protection is achieved with a two-thirds vote, not majority rule. Because so many nations have close trade ties with China or Japan, or rely on wild seafood as a major protein source, many countries are not inclined to support proposals to strongly regulate the catch of these endangered species through CITES.  Those opposing nations prefer regulation through typical fisheries management processes. But these measures have failed to protect the endangered species.

How many extinctions or species collapses will it take before a different mechanism is used to protect marine threatened or endangered species?  Clearly, reliance on a super-majority vote of diplomats and trade experts, instead of the wisdom of conservation biologists and environmental scientists, has led to the continued unbridled plundering of our oceans.

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