Page last updated at 12:05 GMT, Saturday, 27 March 2010

How bureaucrats decided not to save the bluefin tuna

By Adam Mynott
BBC News, Doha

The latest two-week long meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) saw bureaucrats sweep aside expert advice on how to save the bluefin tuna.

 Elephants use their trunks to smell for possible danger in the Tsavo East national park, Kenya
Tanzania lost its bid to sell off a stockpile of elephant ivory

There is no disputing they are important - vital decisions have been taken here in Doha in the past few days affecting plants and creatures great and small.

But international conferences as journalistic assignments struggle to quicken the pulse or stimulate the mind.

They are monuments to bureaucracy and they present a televised world stage to middle-ranking bureaucrats who, once they have pressed the button on the desk in front of them illuminating a red light indicating their microphone is on, seem very reluctant to switch it off again.

Middle-ranking bureaucrats are incapable of generating anything other than middle-ranking oratory.

There are moments of excitement, if that is not too strong a word.

When the vote came through not to allow Tanzania to sell a stockpile of elephant ivory there was applause in the hall: a victory for conservation.

There were equivalent levels of excitement and outrage when delegates voted not to protect the bluefin tuna and several species of shark which are being fished steadily to extinction.

Degree of suspicion

CITES delegates come together every two or three years to add and amend legal protection for a multiplicity of species.

A general view shows the conference of the UN-backed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)
Delegates vote electronically on some of the more contentious issues

Their decisions sit on top of years of detailed, dedicated research.

It is the high-profile, emblematic animals that get most of the attention - the tigers, elephants and gorillas - and crucial measures to protect other species like cacti, caterpillars and clams pass through often unnoticed.

Most issues are agreed by consensus but some contentious ones are pushed to a vote.

Balloting now takes place electronically. Member countries have voting buttons on their desks, and because the counting is electronic and less transparent than a show of hands, it is viewed with a degree of suspicion.

To build confidence, the chairman periodically carries out a few dummy runs to satisfy everyone there are no gremlins in the software.

On day nine as crucial votes loomed, delegates were invited to check the electronic balloting device once again.

"This is just to test the system," the chairman said.

"Here's a simple question to make sure the buttons are working properly: Is Doha the capital of Qatar? To record Yes, please press button number two."

This identified, I think, a level of cynicism and mistrust that is new to the convention

Thirty seconds later, once the 150 delegates had reached forward to prod the relevant button and the votes were recorded, two nations, Croatia and Cameroon, had voted No and - perhaps from force of habit long-established in security councils and global gatherings - China abstained.

The Cameroon and Croatian delegations could not or maybe did not want to explain why they appeared to have learnt little about the city in which they had spent the past week.

The Chinese delegation remained inscrutable and said nothing.

Perhaps they thought it might be giving too much away if they stated unequivocally that Doha was the capital of Qatar.

What this identified, I think, is a level of cynicism and mistrust that is new to the convention.

Shock decision?

CITES - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora - exists to save the planet's endangered species.

An international treaty mechanism which enables man to come together and stop the destructive exploitation of other creatures and plants.

Fishmongers check the quality of meat on large tuna fish at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market
Most of the world's bluefin tuna catch is consumed in Japanese restaurants

No decision is taken without the support of expert evidence, and I cannot help but feel huge sympathy for the scientists and naturalists who tramp through dense jungle and wade through swamps to collect data.

They compile, assess and deliver a recommendation about the protection of a species that they understand in greater detail than anyone else on the planet; all too often that expertise is swept aside by baser instincts.

Maybe it is naive to be surprised that CITES' lofty ideals have become sullied and tarnished by geo-politics, but it is impossible to apply anything other than a very cynical interpretation to the bluefin tuna vote.

Years of research by marine and fisheries experts have concluded that the bluefin tuna's days are numbered, and unless there is an immediate ban it will become extinct in the very near future.

Some experts fear its population in the Atlantic has already fallen below sustainable levels.

Delegates were being asked to give the fish the very highest level of protection and ban its sale.

Leading opposition to the ban was Japan, where most of the world catch is consumed in sushi restaurants.

The Japanese had applied months of diplomatic and not-so-diplomatic activity to their preparations for CITES and they took a 30-strong delegation teeming with fisheries experts to the Doha gathering.

Japan argued that a ban would be unfair, but the science supporting reasoned analysis was pushed to one side by politics, amid claims that Japan was trading promises of donor aid to developing countries in exchange for votes.

Japan prevailed and the bluefin tuna may be doomed.

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