I moved in January and now (more than two months later!) I’m just getting to know my neighbors.  What does this have to do with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)? Well, it turns out they got married in Singapore and had a Chinese ceremony and reception and they chose not to include the traditional shark fin soup on the menu — much to the displeasure of some of their guests. I applaud them for that and I’m so thrilled to have such awesome next door neighbors. I’m sure it took a lot of courage.

Serving shark fin soup at weddings is a very old and very honored tradition in the Chinese culture. Keeping it off the menu might be compared to banning wedding cake from American weddings. Or flowers. Old traditions die hard and shark species are dying out as a result of the over-consumption of shark fins. Bluefin tuna is going fast too and dozens of corals are at great risk among many other marine species. Too many.

And CITES, an international agreement and organization between governments set up to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival, is failing to live up to its name.

The only way to stop the extinction of these precious species to reduce the demand. Don’t eat shark fin soup or bluefin tuna! Don’t buy coral or coral jewelry. And spread the word. And don’t forget – consumption of shark fins and bluefin tuna is harmful to human health because of the high levels of mercury.

Do we not want our children and grandchildren and their children to enjoy the ocean and marine life as much as we did? Are we okay with reefs turning to rubble, imbalanced marine ecosystems, and species obliterated by greed?

Why are these species so important? In the case of bluefin tuna and sharks — they’re apex predators. We need them to maintain healthy oceans. Once they’re killed off — they won’t come back. They take years to reach sexual maturity – as much as 14 years — before they can start reproducing. And when they do reproduce, they produce very few offspring. And corals take thousands of years to grow at a rate of only ~4 cm/year. When they’re gone — they’re really gone.

So back to CITES and the lack of political will necessary to fight industry and greed.

In a discouraging press release from Oceana today, CITES was called “a tragedy of the oceans.” Oceana is a highly respected, very successful ocean advocacy organization. They’re not sensationalist, fish-hugging, enviro-nazis. So this is a strong statement and one that I found alarming to say the least if the very agency established to protect species from extinction is defeating its own purpose by refusing to do what’s best for the species and the planet.

Environmental Group Says Commercial Traders Like Japan Paid for Demise of Commercially Exploited Marine Species

Doha, Qatar, March 25, 2010 – Oceana, the world’s largest international ocean conservation organization, declared the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) a “tragedy of the oceans” today after it failed to protect nearly all the marine species proposed for listing in Appendix I and II during the 15th Conference of the Parties over the past two weeks. Specifically, it failed to ban the international trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna and implement international trade regulations for eight shark species and 31 species of red and pink coral, all of which are essential to the oceans, livelihoods and local economies.

“It appears that money can buy you anything, just ask Japan,” said David Allison, senior campaign director at Oceana. “Under the crushing weight of the vast sums of money gained by unmanaged trade and exploitation of endangered marine species by Japan, China, other major trading countries and the fishing industry, the very foundation of CITES is threatened with collapse.”

Overfishing and the demand of international trade are driving these species of bluefin tuna, sharks and corals to the brink of extinction. Atlantic bluefin tuna, primarily exported to Japan for use in sushi and sashimi, is one of the oceans’ most valuable and vulnerable species. According to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the North Atlantic bluefin tuna spawning biomass has been decimated to less than 15 percent of its unfished biomass, with the sharpest decline occurring in the last decade. Oceana was calling CITES the last chance for protection of Atlantic bluefin tuna.

”Now the very future of bluefin is uncertain,” said María José Cornax, marine scientist at Oceana. “An international trade ban on bluefin tuna would be the strongest single action to end the global market greed for this species. CITES Parties pushed bluefin tuna towards collapse in a shameful process led once again by industry interest.”

Many shark populations around the world have declined by up to 99 percent in recent decades. Oceanic whitetip, dusky, sandbar, spiny dogfish, porbeagle and scalloped, smooth and great hammerhead sharks are threatened by the international consumer demand for their fins, skins, meat and liver oil. The international shark fin trade alone is a multi-billion dollar business that is pushing many shark species to the brink of extinction as the demand for shark fin soup in Asia continues to rise.

“This meeting was a flop,” said Elizabeth Griffin, marine scientist and fisheries campaign at Oceana. “I question if CITES has the political will to protect economically valuable marine species like sharks. Scientific support for listing these shark species just couldn’t compete with dirty politics.”

According to Oceana, one of the only successes of CITES, the inclusion of porbeagle sharks in Appendix II, was reconsidered and defeated at the plenary session. Porbeagle sharks, close relation to the infamous great white, are under threat by the international demand for their meat, which is primarily imported into Europe. Inclusion in Appendix II would have ensured that international trade was kept to sustainable levels.

Red and pink coral, which were proposed for trade protections in CITES for the second time in a row, also failed to get the final two-thirds vote necessary to require trade management under Appendix II due to growing international demand for jewelry and souvenirs. In the last 50 years, the catch of red and pink coral has dropped by more than 80 percent due to population declines following heavy exploitation.

To learn more about Bluefin Tuna, Sharks and Corals in trouble at CITES, and for downloadable images, please visit www.oceana.org/CITES.