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Protection for hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks rejected at CITES meeting

March 24, 2010 |  9:59 pm

Hammerhead DOHA, Qatar — Japan and China on Tuesday torpedoed proposals to protect hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks -- heavily sought for their prized fins -- in the latest victory of fishing interests over global conservation efforts.

The defeat of the U.S.-backed measures was part of an aggressive campaign by the Asian nations to oppose all marine proposals at the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. They also defeated an export ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna, a proposal to regulate the coral trade and a separate shark conservation plan.

Critics accused the countries of putting business and politics ahead of efforts to protect the sharks, which are often fished only for their fins, with their carcasses discarded.

The issue has taken on more urgency due to an increasing demand for shark fin soup as increasing numbers of Chinese middle-class families become wealthier. The soup has long played a central part in traditional Chinese culture, often served at weddings and banquets.

Rwanda's Fidele Ruzigandekwe, who supported the shark listing, said afterward that "science had been set aside for politics."

"It's proven that shark populations have diminished and they warrant protection," Ruzigandekwe said. "Yet, most proposals were rejected. People are not properly informed and the information is being distorted because of commercial interests."

China, Indonesia and other nations that benefit from the trade in shark fins joined the Japanese-led opposition to the proposals arguing that trade restrictions were not the answer and would be difficult to apply. The shark proposals would have for the first time regulated the trade, requiring nations to, among other things, track their imports and exports and the amounts they catch.

"This is not about trade issues but fisheries enforcement," Masanori Miyahara, chief counselor of the Fisheries Agency of Japan, told delegates. "Poaching is a big problem. Small-scale long liners are chasing sharks all over the world."

China said it opposed the proposals because it would be "impossible" to differentiate between regulated and unregulated shark species. It never mentioned the growing demand for shark fin soup but said the ruling would put an unnecessary burden on customs officials.

Hisashi Endo, the director of the Ecosystem and Conservation Office in the Fisheries Agency of Japan, said Tokyo was already working to protect marine species but wanted the matter to be addressed by regional fishing commissions, rather than CITES.

"We are just saying that CITES is not a good place for the conservation of marine resources," said Endo. "We already are making progress on conserving marine species."

The United States, supported by Europe, Australia and many Arab countries, said regional fisheries bodies had failed the sharks with a lack of protective measures.

Widespread illegal fishing has caused populations of the endangered scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead and the threatened smooth hammerhead to plummet by as much as 85 percent. Oceanic whitetip sharks face similar threats and their numbers are down 60 percent to 70 percent.

The hammerhead measure was only narrowly rejected by the U.N. committee, failing by five votes to take the necessary two-thirds majority. The whitetip proposal fell nine votes short of approval.

Tom Strickland, the head of the U.S. delegation, said it was possible they would try and revive the proposals at the larger, plenary meeting, which begins Wednesday.

"It's disappointing we didn't get the two-thirds but that is the way the rules are set up," Strickland said. "We are going to continue our efforts both here and going forward to put the necessary protection in place for these shark species."

The tiny Pacific nation of Palau, which last year created the first ever shark sanctuary, joined the Americans in introducing the shark proposals. It called on countries to protect the species so they can be fished well into the future.

"Millions of sharks are killed each year to support the global fin trade, while a significant percentage of the world's sharks are threatened or near threatened with extinction," said Palau's Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment & Tourism, Harry R. Fritz, adding that his country supports the protection of other shark species as well.

Conservationists were outraged by the rulings. The meeting also defeated controls for the spiny dogfish shark, a key ingredient in European fish and chips, though it did approve regulations on the trade in the porbeagle shark, which is prized mostly by Europe for its high-valued meat.

"Today is a huge loss for the oceans. This is a case of politics prevailing over science," Oceana's Fisheries Campaign Manager Elizabeth Griffin said. "The world failed to stand up today to protect some of the ocean's top predators."

Jupp Baron Kerckerinck zur Borg, president of the Shark Research Institute based in Millbrook, N.Y., acknowledged he was "very disappointed and frustrated right now."

"Japan has been voting the shark proposals down because they are catching them, Singapore voted them down because they make money selling the fins and China makes money because they eat them," he said. "How can we win?"

The Pew Environmental Group said the sharks are especially vulnerable to overfishing because they are slow-growing and have low reproductive rates. Fishermen, both industrial and small-scale and many operating illegally, slice off the fins and throw the carcasses back in the ocean.

-- Associated Press

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Photo: A hammerhead shark swims in the waters off Costa Rica. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

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