WASHINGTON — A U.N. organization that regulates wildlife trade voted Thursday against bans on hunting polar bears threatened by shrinking Arctic ice and on fishing for the Atlantic bluefin tuna, a species that can grow to nearly 1,400 pounds and is prized in Japan for sushi and sashimi.
The U.S. government backed both proposals at a meeting in Doha, Qatar, of the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
U.S. officials argued that polar bears shouldn't be hunted for commercial trade because they already were threatened by melting sea ice caused by global warming. Canada allows a hunt for polar bears for trade in their pelts and other body parts and for trophy hunting.
Tom Strickland, the assistant secretary of the interior for fish, wildlife and parks, said the polar bear proposal was the first time a hunting ban had been sought for an animal threatened by climate change. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that polar bear populations would decline by more than 70 percent in 45 years as ice melts.
The Atlantic bluefin tuna is in steep decline as a result of overfishing. Monaco proposed banning the commercial trade until the fish had time to recover to sustainable levels.
"We're not going to have this fish if we don't take dramatic actions to save it," Strickland said. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas had failed to do enough to protect the fish, prompting U.S. support for the action by the convention, he said.
The vote on bluefin tuna had been expected at the end of the two-week international meeting next week, but Libya called for an immediate vote after discussion about the fish began Thursday. The vote was 68 countries against a ban, 20 in favor and 30 abstaining.
"It is scandalous that governments did not even get the chance to engage in meaningful debate on this proposal, given the overwhelming scientific justification and growing political support in past months," said Mark Stevens, a senior program officer for fisheries at the World Wildlife Fund. "This proposal had backing from the majority of catch quota holders on both sides of the Atlantic."
Japan buys 80 percent of the global catch of bluefin tuna. It led efforts to defeat the ban.
The convention also will consider a U.S.-supported proposal to increase the oversight of fishing for scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead, smooth hammerhead, sandbar, dusky, and oceanic whitetip sharks, which are caught mainly for shark-fin soup, an expensive delicacy at Chinese banquets. A vote is expected soon, possibly by Sunday.
U.S. officials said the international shark-fin trade was decimating some of these species. The proposal wouldn't call for a ban, but would require countries that export the shark fins to show that their harvests wouldn't be detrimental to the species' survival.
Liz Griffin, a scientist and shark specialist with the conservation group Oceana, said sharks were being harvested much faster than they could reproduce. Studies show huge shark population declines in various parts of the world.
"The whole food web gets out of whack when you take out the top predators," Griffin said.
Oceana said in a report that as many as 73 million sharks were killed each year for their fins.
European countries also have proposed protection for two other sharks, the spiny dogfish and porbeagle.
In addition, the U.S. and the European Union support a proposal to regulate the trade of red and pink coral.
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