Freitag, 15. März 2013

Cake but not champagne as CITES finally protects sharks

An edited version of this post on CITES COP 16 is on the website.

If I baked a cake for every significant birthday of an international environmental agreement, I would have a weight problem right now. There has been an avalanche of birthdays recently: the Montreal Protocol to protect the Ozone layer turned 25; the Constitution of the Oceans - called UNCLOS - turned 30 and now CITES - the convention regulating the international trade of wild plants and animals - is celebrating its 40th anniversary (eek, same age as me!). Today, a cake would be justified though, as CITES concluded its latest meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, on a positive note. They took some additional steps to curb illegal logging and finally restricted trade in key shark species. CITES is not in midlife crisis, it seems, but is fledging its teeth and showing the world it has some bite! Good on them. You may keep hearing about global environmental politics being dead. Days like today show that reports of the death of multilateralism are highly exaggerated.

CITES currently has 177 member governments and usually makes headlines because it deals with the trade of impressive looking elephants, rhinos and tigers (you may have heard about Thailand committing to end ivory trade at this year´s meeting. Leonardo di Caprio was pretty excited about that). But CITES deals with A LOT more than elephants: It has some 5000 animal species and 29 000 plant species on its overfull plate. It just about manages to deal with that workload because unlike many UN agreements it does not operate by consensus. If no common agreement can be found, parties put a decision to a vote. The shark decisions this year were saved by a thin majority – but saved they were. Even more importantly, CITES cannot just ask nicely that governments please do what they have committed to. It can punish governments that export more than CITES allows with trade sanctions that hurt.

In recent years, CITES had sadly not used these powers as much as the world needs and failed to make progress on key issues such as shark protection. Like other global agreements, it had been hijacked by short term economic interests – with governments acting as servants to big business. As a result several commercially valuable but threatened fish species - including sharks - had failed to be listed by previous CITES meetings in recent years. That is why the listing of five shark species and two manta rays (look here if you - like me - didn´t immediately know what those are) today is all the more sweet. This time, the forces of darkness lost – and CITES did what it was established for. It protected our global commons over private interests.

Cake is in order then. And a big shout out to our allies Pew and the coalition that worked tirelessly over these past years, months and days to ensure that these species escape the fate of the poor dodo …Gratitude, also, to those governments who stood up for sharks and the environment today. You know what, you should have days like this more often – serving the people, not the polluters.

But this is not a champagne moment. Whilst it is a great affirmation of multilateralism for the world’s governments to come together and decide to protect these extremely valuable marine species, the need to do so is truly alarming and sad. We need these CITES trade measures precisely because we are so spectacularly bad at managing our planetary home, driving more and more species to (the brink of) extinction. We need CITES strong teeth to protect  sharks because otherwise we will not have any sharks left. And to be certain that sharks have a future, much more than today´s CITES decisions will be needed. 

Millions of sharks are caught as part of global tuna fisheries every year. Their bodies are thrown overboard, but only after the fins are hacked off in order to end up in shark-fin soup. As a result, it is almost too late for some shark species, such as the oceanic white tips, that have gone through dramatic stock declines.

CITES trade controls will help monitor and limit the number of species traded, as permits are only granted if the trade of the species can be proven not to compromise the future survival of this species in the wild. These extra measures will significantly improve current scientific assessments on these species, which are currently weak or in some cases non-existent. However, as long as fisheries management and enforcement in tuna fisheries remain weak, massive loopholes will remain.

Following the positive steps taken at CITES today, it is now time for governments to improve ocean governance overall and to urgently ban shark finning. So called transshipments at sea for tuna vessels – which in practice catch the majority of sharks – also need to be banned. These transfers of products from one ship to another enables shark fins to be “laundered” as domestic trade, therefore escaping the scrutiny of CITES’ controls. Greenpeace, therefore, is campaigning for tuna brands, restaurants and retailers to not buy from vessels that engage in this practice.

CITES took a step forward today. That gives me – and all of us Rainbow Warriors - new energy for the next battles that we must also win if sharks, our oceans and our planet are to have a sustainable future.

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