David Heath MP reports back on the CITES conference and global agreement to protect sharks and manta rays

Much of my work in the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs centres on the last two parts of the title, so it’s good just occasionally to be able to make a difference on the other part of the agenda, the environment. I had just such an opportunity last week when I represented the United Kingdom at the meeting of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

I was in Bangkok, Thailand, leading a trade mission on behalf of British meat and livestock to the biggest trade fair in Asia. But the timing meant that I could also attend as minister the CITES conference, the triennial gathering to look at the rules which regulate trade in species which are facing extinction. The conference attracts some two thousand delegates from over one hundred and fifty countries. As twenty years ago I worked briefly as a consultant to the Worldwide Fund for Nature I was particularly interested to see what progress has been made.

My impressions? Firstly, a hugely positive view of the work of the British team in tirelessly working to build coalitions of interest to secure the future of some of our most vulnerable animals and plants before they are lost to extinction. That is coupled with some tremendous efforts from British non-governmental bodies and individuals with a huge level of professionalism and knowledge of the subject. Secondly, a great deal of satisfaction with what was achieved.

Did we get everything we wanted? No. The vexed question of polar bears, for instance, was unresolved as despite strenuous efforts we could not establish a meeting of minds. But we led the way in making huge advances in securing the future of the rhino, for instance, and the tiger, that most iconic of the big cats. A significant advance was made in battling the poaching of ivory, with an important declaration by the Prime Minister of Thailand on trade in elephants within her country. For the first time some strict rules on the import and export of endangered tree species, which have sometimes seemed forgotten within the CITES framework.

But the biggest drama of the day was a ground-breaking vote on the conservation of sharks and rays. There had earlier been what may be a game-changing decision on the status of oceanic species and their relevance to the trade restrictions which means that the treaty obligations of CITES will now clearly deal with fish outside territorial waters. Sharks are not everyone’s favourite creatures, but there’s no denying the importance and even the fascination exerted by something like a hammerhead shark or a manta ray. And they are under threat, largely through over-fishing for their fins. So the decision to list the oceanic white-tip, the hammerhead and the porbeagle shark and the manta ray for protection was important.

The Japanese, however, weren’t happy. And they had support, some from neighbouring countries which share their predilections for the culinary qualities of shark, but also countries which may have been given other reasons for supporting the Japanese position, not unconnected with trade or aid deals. They thought they could overturn the decision. It turned out they couldn’t, as country after country stuck to their principles. The vote, at the instigation of the Japanese delegation, was to be a secret ballot. Even that was frustrated, as a succession of countries, including every single country in South and Central America, the USA, and every member state of the European Union made their determination to protect the shark public.

I have seldom felt more delighted to have been on the winning side.

* David Heath is MP for Somerton and Frome and Minister of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

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