One fish, two fish, three fish more . . . Success at CITES confirmed!

SSL Logo

For nearly two weeks now Sea Shepherd Legal (SSL) has been in South Africa advocating on behalf of marine species at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES).  Despite its long name, this treaty has a simple driving purpose: to prevent international trade in wildlife (and plants) that is detrimental to the survival of the species.  While SSL does not condone treating wildlife as a “resource” to be traded “sustainably,” we recognize that CITES, with 183 signatory nations, represents one of the only safeguards against the unfettered exploitation of wild animals on a global scale.

For decades, CITES has played an important role in protecting terrestrial species but has been woefully inadequate in extending the same protections to marine species.  The precious oceans and their inhabitants are being devastated by increasing levels of legal and illegal fishing driven by our insatiable demand for seafood.  Yet, despite these dire circumstances, only a handful of marine species have been placed on CITES’ lists – an Appendix I listing banning commercial trade, or an Appendix II listing restricting trade “detrimental” to the survival of the species.

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Now to the good news.  By greater than the two-thirds majority required, the CITES parties voted to include thresher and silky sharks as well as devil rays in Appendix II.  SSL worked hard to prepare for this conference and to lobby nations that were “on the fence” to vote in favor of marine conservation.  Toward this end, we invited party delegates to our side event, in which we highlighted the fact that CITES has long neglected marine species, presented counterarguments to Japan’s long-repeated and unsupported arguments against listing any marine species under CITES, and showcased the role that Sea Shepherd plays in marine species protection.  As part of our event, we also assembled a panel of experts and party proponents of the listings to deliver the message that greater species protections were critical and achievable.

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Species Listed at CITES CoP 17

In preparing to leave South Africa for our next project, we cannot help but to reflect on the overall experience.  CITES has a reputation for shady backroom deals and shameful attempts to “buy” votes from party delegates.  While it it true that we witnessed such nefarious conduct, we also grew to appreciate the sincere efforts by many parties – and particularly some of the developing (or less developed) nations – to advocate on behalf of wildlife conservation against determined opposition.  For the marine species at issue in this conference, the results of these labors – Appendix II listings – offer renewed hope for their continued survival and potential recovery in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.

SEA SHEPHERD LEGAL -Working to Secure Justice for Lolita

In early September, Sea Shepherd Legal filed an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief in the PETA v. Miami Seaquarium case.  PETA and and its allies previously filed a lawsuit against the Miami Seaquarium to protest the captivity and treatment of the orca Lolita, who has spent more than 45 years in a small tank to entertain the public.  The evidence showed that Lolita suffers from a variety of harms, including repetitive behavior due to cramped conditions, rake injuries inflicted by socially incompatible dolphins, and skin and eye damage from inadequate shade.  However, the trial court ultimately decided that these harms were insufficient to establish a violation of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  PETA is appealing the decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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In seeking justice for Lolita, PETA enlisted Sea Shepherd Legal’s assistance.  Our brief supports PETA’s position by asserting that the trial court has ignored decades of Supreme Court case law interpreting the ESA.  Sea Shepherd Legal also emphasizes that the court’s opinion wrongly assumes captive animals like Lolita have a greater tolerance for pain and suffering than their wild counterparts.

We are hopeful that, by adding our voice to the fight, we will convince the appellate court to arrive at the best decision for Lolita.

NYT Article: New U.S.-Mexico Vaquita Protections Useless Unless China Curbs Totoaba Demand

By Andrew C. Revkin

July 27, 2016 7:30 am July 27, 2016 7:30 am

vaquitaA pair of vaquitas, a porpoise driven toward extinction by certain fishing methods, in Mexico’s Gulf of California.Credit Paula Olson / NOAA

In theory, July 9 was International Save the Vaquita Day, conceived to press Mexico to do more to protect the last few dozen members of a tiny and profoundly endangered porpoise species confined to overfished waters at the north end of the Gulf of California.

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A 2015 survey of the home waters of the world’s most endangered marine mammal, Mexico’s vaquita porpoise, found the population has continued to plunge.Credit International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita

In practice, last Friday could well have been that day. After a morning meeting at the White House, President Obama and President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico released a long list of new initiatives on issues of shared concern. Sorry, Donald, there’s no wall building, but the list touches on climate-friendly energy initiatives, trade and travel and — crucially for the vaquita — a strong new suite of commitments from both nations.

Most important, by far, is Nieto’s presidential-level affirmation that Mexico will turn what was to be a two-year moratorium on deadly gill nets in vaquita habitat into a permanent ban. Here’s the relevant section of the joint announcement, along with my thoughts on a critical next step involving China:

– Mexico will make permanent a ban on the use of gillnets in all fisheries throughout the range of the vaquita in the upper Gulf of California;

– Both countries will increase cooperation and enforcement efforts to immediately halt the illegal fishing for and illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders;

– Both countries will redouble efforts, in collaboration with international experts, to develop alternative fishing gear to gillnets that does not result in the entanglement of vaquita and establish “vaquita-safe” fisheries;

– Both countries will establish and implement a long-term program to remove and permanently dispose of illegal and derelict fishing gear from vaquita habitat in the upper Gulf of California.

The permanent ban had been announced by fisheries officials in Mexico earlier last week, but the presidential agreement reinforces the commitment.

A 60 Minutes report in May provided a helpful fresh look at the challenging realities on the waters off San Felipe, the Mexican town where many of the fishing boats plying the vaquita’s habitat are based.

dried swim bladders

Dried swim bladders from a large endangered Mexican fish, the totoaba, for sale in Guangshou, China.Credit Environmental Investigation Agency

The report also focused on an issue I’ve written on periodically — how the vaquita death rate has been driven up by unrelenting Chinese demand for the dried swim bladder of the totoaba, a large endangered fish found in the same waters. The air-breathing marine mammals become entangled in the fine-mesh nets.

But there could be reason for hope on the demand side, as well. A fascinating 2015 feature story in Quartz by Gwynn Guilford laid out links between the global economic crisis of 2008, Chinese investment habits and the poor vaquita. Here’s an excerpt on how the “bladder bubble” built and burst:

What drove the demand was that in times of strife, Chinese households have been known to stockpile the more valuable bladders as speculative investments, on some occasions even trading them as currency.

That’s what happened after the 2008 global financial crisis hit. The Chinese government reacted with a stimulus package that sent easy money sloshing around the economy—adding up to 17.5 trillion yuan ($2.8 trillion) in 2009 and 2010 (paywall). Cash flooded into a dizzying array of speculative assets, from property and copper to modern art to pu’er tea—and totoaba bladders. Traders in Hong Kong tell of selling large bladders for HK$1 million ($130,000) in 2011 and 2012, according to a recent Greenpeace East Asia report (pdf). These merchants emphasized that buyers weren’t interested in health tonics; they were snapping up these “cash bladders,” as they call them, as investments….

The Chinese investors’ appetite for bladders, the economic slump in Mexico, and lax enforcement created a perfect storm. Signs of the totoaba slaughter began showing up in the upper Gulf of California around 2011, says Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, head of marine mammal conservation and research for the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change (INECC) in Mexico.

If the Chinese government cracks down on this illicit trade and speculation and, at the same time, supports efforts to educate consumers the way it did with shark fin soup, it’s conceivable that the vaquita could, by the narrowest conceivable margin, avoid extinction.

Time will tell. I created a bit of artwork to share the message in Chinese. Help pass it to friends in China.

Chinas turn to protect the vaquitaA Mexican porpoise on the verge of extinction needs immediate help from China. Credit Dot Earth

Here are some additional reactions:

Zak Smith, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council focused on marine mammal protection, pointed hopefully to a mention of the totoaba in an agreement last month on marine conservation goals between maritime officials from China and the United States:

China has a vital role to play in saving the vaquita by aggressively rooting out the trafficking of totoaba in Hong Kong and mainland China. The illegal gill-net fishing of totoaba in the northern Gulf of California is causing the vaquita’s perilous decline. Fortunately, just last month the United States and China made important commitments to reduce the impact of wildlife trafficking on totoaba. These commitments and the additional commitments made by Mexico and the United States offer a path for vaquita survival. It is critical for all three countries to live up to their promises

Kate O’Connell, a marine wildlife consultant with the Animal Welfare Institute, reinforced how the shark fin campaign provides a template for curbing demand for totoaba bladders:

It is crucial for the Chinese government to get ahead of the trafficking in totoaba buches. [Buche is the Mexican term for the swim bladders.] Unfortunately, despite calls from both the Mexican and U.S. governments, China has barely acknowledged the conservation crisis that the demand for this high-priced fish product has caused.

Both the Chinese government and nonprofit groups need urgently to address the demand issue with well thought out public education programs. Since the government banned the use of shark fins in government banquets, for example, and celebrity-fronted campaigns such as Wild Aid’s effort with Yao Ming, it appears that demand for shark fins has dropped. If both the vaquita and totoaba are to survive, China must become part of a multi-faceted solution, rather than the major market for an illegal marine product that is helping to drive the vaquita to extinction.

 

From Panama to the Netherlands – Sea Shepherd Legal on the Global Campaign Trail

Sea Shepherd Legal spent the past month on the campaign trail forging relationships with officials globally to protect marine wildlife and habitats.  These in-person meetings set the stage for a great start to 2016.  Here are a few of the highlights:

RESOUNDING SUCCESS IN PANAMA

Logo REDE LA MP AMBIENTAL

In November, SSL arrived in Panama for the Seventh Annual Congress of the Red Latinoamericana de Ministerio Público Ambiental (Latin American Environmental Prosecutors’ Network, or “the Red”).  The Red is a forum through which 300+ state and federal environmental prosecutors across Latin America share ideas and collaborate regarding effective methods to combat environmental crimes ranging from illegal logging to wildlife trafficking.

SSL’s goal in attending was to highlight the plight of the oceans and the critical need to develop and enforce marine protective laws throughout the region.  We received an overwhelmingly positive response, reflected in (1) an official declaration stating that Red is dedicated to working with SSL; and (2) the establishment of a marine subcommittee to help facilitate immediate and active collaboration between Red and SSL.

COALITION-BUILDING IN STRASBOURG, FRANCE

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SSL participated as an official observer at the annual meeting of the Standing Committee to the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (the Bern Convention).  The meeting was held at the Council of Europe’s Palais de l’Europe in Strasbourg.

photo bern ssl

Attending this meeting was key to SSL’s effort to leverage the Bern Convention to protect pilot whales and other small cetaceans.  These creatures are being brutally slaughtered each year in the Faroe Islands, a self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark.  Pilot whales are listed in Appendix II of the Bern Convention.  As such, state parties, like Denmark, are required to heed the Convention’s prohibition against “all forms of . . . deliberate killing.”

Although Denmark entered a reservation to except the Faroes from the Convention’s reach, it is SSL’s position that the slaughter in the Faroes is nevertheless illegal.  Without a doubt, Denmark’s participation in the slaughter most certainly violates the Convention.  Toward that end, SSL met with representatives of multiple European Union member states and other Standing Committee members, garnering support for an action against Denmark.

KEEPING OCEANS ON THE COP 21 AGENDA IN PARIS

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Following the meeting in Strasbourg, SSL headed west to attend Oceans Day and other events at COP 21 in Paris.  We were both pleased and disappointed by what we experienced.

The primary event we attended was Oceans Day – a forum designed “to advance the oceans and climate change agenda at COP 21 and beyond.”  We listened to multiple world leaders speak about how climate change impacts our oceans, livelihoods and small island states.  Some leaders, including the Prince of Monaco and President of Palau, provided examples of efforts underway to mitigate these impacts.  We were pleased by the awareness, but were disappointed by the following glaring incongruities:

Talking the talk, but not walking the walk  .  .  .

Again, this was the OCEANS DAY forum.  So, what are some of the biggest threats to ocean health?  Climate change, overfishing, and plastics pollution.  Yet, what did the event organizers serve to the participants?

  • Plastic water bottles and plastic cups!  Not only does the production of plastic exacerbate global warming, but a huge amount of plastics from water bottles end up in our oceans.  With 200+ attendees at Ocean Day (not to mention the 40,000+ attendees at COP 21 as a whole, who also were served plastic), just imagine the potential impact.

 plastic at cop21

Stats at a glance: Meeting the annual demand for bottled water in the United States alone requires more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year.  Less than ¼ of plastic water bottles are ever recycled.  Notably, the recycling process also produces greenhouse gases. Why use them?  Why serve them?    

  • Fish and chips!   This is not a joke.  Fish and chips were top menu items for purchase at the Oceans Day event.  It seems obvious that If we want to protect our oceans, we need to decrease demand.  Decreasing demand on our oceans was never mentioned at the Oceans Day event.

fish n chips

Stats at a glance: Marine fisheries are collapsing around the world.  Approximately 85% of global fish stocks are over-exploited, depleted, fully exploited, or in recovery from exploitation.  Scientists warn that we may be the last generation to harvest wild-caught fish in significant numbers. Despite these trends, global demand for fish continues to rise, with per-capita consumption now four times higher than it was in 1950.

  • Hamburgers and sliced meats!  Hamburgers were one of the first things to sell out at the Ocean’s Day café, while complimentary samplings of salami and other sliced meats were passed around to registered participants (to go along with wine served in plastic cups).  Surely, everyone knows by now that the production of livestock contributes significantly to climate change. 

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Stats at a glace: It is estimated that animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation.  Cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – per day.  Emissions from agriculture are projected to increase 80% by 2050.

SSL commends the organizers of COP 21 for focusing an entire day on oceans, and for using sustainable products in some aspects of the Paris climate summit.  In the future, we hope to work with organizers to ensure that events we attend are planned in a mindful manner that lessens the impact on marine wildlife and environments.

Oceans- Deserving of a full-day forum, yet merely a passing thought in the final climate agreement 

At COP 21, SSL pushed for due respect for oceans in the new climate agreement.  The agreement took on multiple iterations throughout its development – many of which failed to even include the word “oceans.”  This despite the fact that the world’s oceans provide 50% of our oxygen and absorb 1/3 of our CO2 emissions.  Concerned about the progress of the agreement, SSL circulated an emergency petition to ensure that oceans remain a focus of the landmark agreement.

Ultimately, the word “oceans” at least made it in the preamble, where the Parties “not[ed] the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, . . . when taking action to address climate change[.]”

As a colleague reminds us, “the word game is the long game.”  Even if oceans are not included in the operative provisions of the agreement, the preambular language is meaningful and pregnant with potential.  SSL will do everything it can to make the most of this clause.

COLLABORATING WITH OUR SEA SHEPHERD COMRADES IN THE NETHERLANDS

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Our trip would not have been complete without a campaign trail stop at the Sea Shepherd Global headquarters in Amsterdam.  SSL is dedicated to upholding the overarching mission of Sea Shepherd to “end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species.”

SSL is developing multiple legal campaigns that complement the amazing work of the superheroes at Sea Shepherd Global.  Together, we look forward to a strong and successful 2016!   Stay tuned for future blogs and publications.

Please donate to support our work to protect marine wildlife and ecosystems – visit our secure donation link at www.seashepherdlegal.org.