Talks to address trade in tuna and ivory

Marathon negotiations on protecting the planet’s endangered species open on Saturday in Qatar with tensions bubbling over efforts to ban trade in bluefin tuna and to reopen exports of elephant ivory from Africa.

About 40 proposals are on the agenda for the 12-day meeting of the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which could help determine the fate of species from rhinoceroses to polar bears, from hammerhead sharks to red coral.

A pronounced focus on marine creatures is evident in this year’s proposals, reflecting a growing awareness of the decimation of the seas, negotiators and conservation experts say.

“As you are seeing the impact of industrial fishing for the past 50 or 60 years, marine species have finally started to get some attention,” said Matthew Rand, the director of global shark conservation for the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Some of the fiercest debate in the prelude to the meeting in Doha, the Qatari capital, has centered on the bluefin tuna, whose ranks have plummeted by about 90 percent in the western Atlantic and 80 percent or more in the eastern Atlantic since 1970.

Conservationists want to ban international trade in bluefin tuna to allow stocks to regenerate. But Japan, which consumes well over half of the worldwide catch and where a single fish can fetch prices above $100,000, said Thursday that it would opt out of the ban if it was approved.

Such a move is allowed under the 1973 convention, which has been signed by 175 countries and is often referred to by its acronym, Cites (pronounced SIGHT-ees).

In the United States, conservationists have faulted the Obama administration as being slow to support the ban. But Thomas L. Strickland, the assistant secretary of the interior for fish, wildlife and parks, said that Washington would work hard to win passage.

“The bluefin tuna is in a catastrophic decline,” said Strickland, who is leading the American delegation to the talks. “It is imperative that we take strong steps to protect that iconic fish.”

He suggested that European Union countries, swayed by Spain, Italy and France with their large tuna fleets, have been dragging their feet on enforcing quotas. “There are questions about some of the Mediterranean countries, whether they have been as attentive as others,” he said.

The European Union said Wednesday that it would support a ban but with certain reservations. That includes a one-year delay in enforcing the ban if approved, and an exemption for “artisanal” fishermen who supply their local markets using small boats.

Yet perhaps the most bitter fight has arisen over a proposal by Tanzania and Zambia to resume trade in their stocks of elephant ivory. Led by Kenya, several other African nations are seeking to block the request, arguing that it could lead to a surge in illegal poaching across the continent.

Tanzania and Zambia counter that they would funnel all the estimated $18.5 million in tusk sales toward conservation.

In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, an international team of conservationists details a sharp increase in poaching in recent years — even before 2007, when Cites approved a less protected status for elephants in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Affluent buyers of ivory carvings in China, Japan and Thailand have driven the market in poaching, the conservationists said, abetted by Asian gangs operating in Africa.

From 8 percent to 10 percent of the elephant population is being poached annually, said Samuel K. Wasser, a University of Washington biologist and the lead author of the Science article. DNA studies indicate that most of the trafficking runs through Tanzania and Zambia.

A complete ban in 1989 helped slow a precipitous decline, but a population estimated at 1.3 million in 1980 is down to less than 500,000 today. Sierra Leone reported the death of its last elephant in 2009, said Pat Awori, the founder of the Kenya Elephant Forum, an umbrella group of organizations seeking to extend the ban.

Kenya, Congo, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, Rwanda and Sierra Leone have proposed extending the ban until 2027.

Their acrimony extends toward the Cites leadership itself, which they have accused of promoting the ivory trade. The leadership issued a statement denying any favoritism.

In bargaining for support, Kenya and its allies have signaled to the European Union that they will support the ban on bluefin tuna fishing in exchange for support on extending the moratorium on trading ivory, Ms. Awori said.

“If we don’t extend the ban to be able to study the impact of these limited sales, there may be no elephants left to protect,” she said.

Such horse trading is controversial: conservationists argue that every proposal should rise or fall on the basic of scientific evidence detailing the possible extinction of individual species, not as part of a political deal.

But it is not unusual at a meeting of around 2,000 delegates representing parties from tiny states like Monaco, which proposed the bluefin tuna ban, to the Asian association of shark fin traders.

The United States is proposing that six species of sharks be added to the list of endangered animals whose trade is monitored but not banned. They include the hammerhead shark, whose fins are highly prized in China for soup, with a bowlful selling for as much as $100.