Image: Shark fins for sale
Vincent Yu  /  AP
Shark fins are displayed at a dried seafood shop in Hong Kong on March 8.
updated 3/16/2010 3:46:04 PM ET 2010-03-16T19:46:04

China, Japan and Russia helped defeat a U.S.-endorsed proposal at a U.N. wildlife trade meeting Tuesday that would have boosted conservation efforts for sharks, expressing concern it would hurt poor nations and should be the responsibility of regional fisheries bodies.

The opposition to the shark proposal came hours after the marine conservation group Oceana came out with a report showing that demand for shark fin soup in Asia is driving many species of these big fish to the brink of extinction.

The nonbinding measure, which called for increased transparency in the shark trade and more research into the threat posed to sharks by illegal fishing, had been expected to gain approval by a committee of the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.

But the United States, the European Union and other supporters were unable to muster the two-thirds majority needed after China, Russia, Japan and several developing countries argued that shark populations aren't suffering.

The decision could be a bad omen for a two-week meeting that will include much more controversial marine proposals, including banning the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna, which is popular with sushi lovers, and tightening the trade on eight shark species.

"What we saw today is those parties that disagree with listing commercially fished species on CITES making a stand," said Glenn Sant, the global marine program leader for the conservation group TRAFFIC. "I do worry that instead of looking at the logic and facts of what some of this material contains, they will simply vote on the grounds that they don't want to see any movement on conserving marine species."

Many of the arguments used by China, Japan, Russia and several North African countries to oppose the measure were expected to be recycled by delegates later this week when proposals to tightening regulations on the shark trade are considered.

China and Russia argued that shark populations aren't suffering. Japan insisted that current measures in place are more than adequate. Developing countries like Libya and Morocco complained that any effort to protect sharks would damage the economies of poor fishing nations and burden them with expensive enforcement requirements.

The Chinese delegation said there was no scientific evidence that the shark's survival is threatened and CITES was not the right forum to handle the issue. The Chinese would prefer to leave regulation to existing tools like the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and regional bodies which conservationists argue have failed to crackdown on illegal fishing and even uphold their own modest quotas.

Oceana, a Washington, D.C.-based group, found that as many as 73 million sharks are killed each year, primarily for their fins, with much of the trade going to China.

Shark fin soup has long played central part in traditional Chinese culture, often being served at weddings and banquets. Demand for the soup has surged as increasing numbers of Chinese middle class family become wealthier.

Also Tuesday, the CITES Secretariat recommended that delegates support a proposal allowing Zambia to conduct a one-off sale of ivory while rejecting a similar request by Tanzania.

The recommendation could go a long way toward shaping the final vote, which was expected as early as Monday. Zambia wants to sell 48,000 pounds (21,700 kilograms) of ivory while Tanzania is asking to sell almost 200,000 pounds (90,000 kilograms) of ivory.

Tom De Meulenaer, the elephant expert for CITES, said the Secretariat endorsed a conclusion by a panel of experts that Zambia had conservation measures in place while Tanzania allows poaching in several parts of the country and remained a transit point for illegal raw ivory shipments.

The findings against Tanzania could bolster the arguments of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, which have proposed a halt to the limited international trade in African elephant ivory currently permitted and a 20-year moratorium on any proposals to relax international trade controls on African elephants.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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