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For Bluefin, Polar Bears Commerce Trumps Conservation

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Once again, conservation yielded to commerce today. The proposal to ban global trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna -- the international poster child for overfishing -- was always a long shot. Nonetheless, it's a huge disappointment that delegates to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) today rejected the ban by a wide margin.

Fishing nations led by Japan were more swayed by potential economic losses than the prospect of driving a magnificent ocean animal to extinction. Despite their apparent self-interest in the long-term survival of the species, Japan and other Asian countries lobbied hard to defeat the proposed trade ban. Delegates in Doha, Qatar opted to leave management of the fast-collapsing Atlantic bluefin population in the hands of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas -- the body that has failed repeatedly for more than three decades to conserve the species.

I am heartened by one thing. We're finally talking about the Atlantic bluefin tuna in the same way we discuss lions, tigers and other charismatic (and endangered) land animals. These are amazing creatures, top predators facing serious threats to their survival, and the international community must act.

We didn't win this time around, but it was an important step forward in gaining broad public recognition of the problem. And elevating the debate puts fishery managers on notice that the world will be watching as they redouble efforts to develop a recovery plan for the bluefin tuna.

Forging international consensus will be a challenge. The same CITES delegates turned down trade restrictions on eight globally endangered shark species, including oceanic whitetips, hammerheads and spiny dogfish. China and other nations argued -- scientific research notwithstanding -- that shark populations are not plummeting, and that fisheries management agencies are the best place to address the issue. Perhaps so, but they are going to have to do a far better job than ever before to reverse the alarming trends of decline.

Not even polar bears could muster a majority in Doha.

A proposal by the United States to prohibit export of polar bear skins and parts was defeated, and for similar reasons. Opponents said that the economies of polar nations -- notably Canada, which is the only nation that allows export of polar bear hides -- would be hurt by a trade ban, and that polar bears' survival isn't affected by hunting.

Last week, I posed the question: Will we only save the cute? Sometimes, even cute isn't enough.

But a single setback is not decisive. All of us at the Monterey Bay Aquarium are in this for the long haul.

We've been doing our part to inspire conservation of the oceans for more than 25 years -- and opening discussion about the critical issues facing ocean wildlife today, like overfishing (through our Seafood Watch program) and climate change (through a new special exhibition, "Hot Pink Flamingos: Stories of Hope in a Changing Sea").

We'll continue the fundamental scientific research that contributes to understanding the lives of bluefin tuna in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans - research that I'm confident will inform policy decisions when international regulatory bodies finally begin the responsible management of tuna fisheries.

I'm incredibly encouraged that, in just over 24 hours, thousands of our friends and supporters stepped up to encourage U.S. efforts to rally other nations to support the bluefin tuna campaign. I encourage you to join us and add your voice to those standing on the side of ocean wildlife. We didn't prevail this time -- but our day will come.

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