Marine Conservation Losses

Polar BearMarch 31, 2010

In a time of tremendous loss of biodiversity in the marine environment, it saddens me to read the recent headline: “Trade Beats Conservation At U.N. Wildlife Talks.”

Last week marked the end of the U.N. Conference on Endangered Species where CITES (Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species) listings were considered for proposed terrestrial and marine species.

Unfortunately for marine species, including polar bears, sharks, bluefin tuna, and red and pink hard corals, very few additional conservation measures received enough votes to increase trade protection. Only one species of shark, the porbeagle shark, received additional protection under CITES; but the Atlantic bluefin tuna, seven species of sharks and 31 species of decorative corals used in the jewelry trade industry all failed to receive enough votes from the delegates of 175 nations to receive additional conservation protection.

Blue Fin Tuna at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, JapanIt is unfortunate that short-term economic gain won over long-term sustainable management. The science was obviously ignored. For instance, we now know that stocks of bluefin tuna have fallen by at least 85 percent in the Mediterranean Sea since the industrial fishing era began just 40 years ago. The scientific community believes bluefin tuna may be extinct in less than five years if immediate management steps are not taken. There is now a grim outlook for this prized fishery, considered one of the most lucrative fisheries in the world. A single fish, weighing close to 1500 pounds can fetch more than $100,000 on the Japanese fish market. Japan alone imports about 80 percent of the bluefin catch from Europe.

If bluefin tuna had received enough votes for Endangered Species designation under CITES Appendix I, there would have been a complete ban on trade in the species among CITES signatories. But Japan, China and other countries voted against the CITES listing, opposing international authorities in the regulation of ocean fish. There is just too much at stake economically with little foresight for the future of a sustainable fishery or its rich cultural past.

Pacific BluefinFor thousands of years in Europe, the bluefin tuna has been worshipped, unusual for a fish. Evidence of their status, especially in what we consider the heart of Western civilization, is preserved in Italy’s oldest paintings: 4,000 year-old island cave paintings. The bluefin tuna’s image is impressed on the backs of ancient coins with Hercules on the flip side, and it’s the subject of Mattanza fish-catching rituals of cultures from Turkey to Spain. But modern day demand for this prized oceanic fish will not only decimate this ecologically valuable species in the Atlantic; it will change the history of human dependence on this cultural icon if it becomes listed as commercially extinct in the near future.

Sushi_0.jpgA CITES listing for international protection was urgently needed; but now we consumers have to act immediately and help change the market for the demand – all of which ultimately ends with the sushi consumer. It ends with the sushi consumer walking away from the table if bluefin tuna are served. We need to have the guts to follow the example of Prince Albert of Monaco who was the first to ban bluefin tuna from restaurants last June. The race may be between catching the last fish and understanding its magnificence.

The Ocean Futures Society motto has long been that “Everything is connected,” and now we are obliged to better understand the connection between epic struggles for survival of entire species and the items on our dinner plates. While not simple, that may be the critical connection that determines the future of the bluefin tuna.

It’s time for us all to take immediate action to save the richness of our oceanic planet for all species, including ourselves.

Thirty-one species of pink and red coral also failed to receive additional protection under CITES. My daughter, Céline Cousteau, has joined forces in a campaign to protect hard coral species by educating consumers on the fact that the high prices paid for decorative corals are destroying some of the richest marine ecosystems on this water planet. Here is her letter to the editor that appeared in the Washington Post.

Who will protect ocean coral?
by Céline Cousteau

Monday, March 29, 2010

I read with dismay about red and pink coral not receiving protected status from the U.N. body responsible for such designations ["Nations reject coral protections at wildlife conservation conference," news story, March 22]. The fact that nations that have signed on to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) chose to give in to misleading lobbying from countries with coral industries is a disheartening testament that sound science doesn't always prevail.

Now that international trade protection for these species has failed, it is up to jewelry, fashion and home-decor designers to pledge to not use real coral in their work. The United States alone contributes significantly to the 30 to 50 tons of red and pink coral taken annually from the ocean. It is time for the marketplace to take action where international governments have been unsuccessful, and it is up to consumers to take a stand and not purchase items made from coral.

While this CITES conference was disappointing for marine species, the delegates should know that the world was watching. I hope that people will realize that owning a coral necklace or eating shark fin soup is not necessary but that protecting these species is vital to the health of all of us who live on this ocean planet. - Céline Cousteau

To learn more please:

Warm regards,


First Photo: Polar Bear in the Arctic©Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED
Second Photo: The Bluefin Auction at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan ©Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED
Third Photo: Pacific Bluefin Tuna © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society.
Fourth Photo: Tradition Japanese Sushi - including Bluefin © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society.