Animal welfare advocates cheered when US officials appeared to take a tough stance against the shark finning industry during an environmental trade agreement talk between international leaders in Bangkok in March of 2013. Now, that stance may be under threat.
Last year, Delegates at the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species appeared close to deciding on stronger protections for several marine species, something that was taken to mean shark finning might soon be a thing of the past. However, recently leaked documents of the draft text of the agreement between the United States and the 12 Trans-Pacific Partnership nations contains no such promise.
Finning is a barbaric practice in which sharks are captured and have their fins cut off. The sharks are left to die, while the fins are used for a number of things including to create shark fin soup, a popular dish in many of the Pacific rim nations. Millions of sharks a year are thought to be dying as a result of this practice.
The text of the leaked documents, which was released by WikiLeaks this month but is dated from November of 2013, appears to show that the United States is preparing to make concessions not only on shark finning, but also key pollution reduction and control targets and logging restrictions.
Ilana Solomon from the Sierra Club said reform advocates are extremely disappointed with the draft text:
“We’ve been calling for a ban on shark finning, which should be in this chapter. All we got in the text was a suggestion that countries should come up with fish management plans that may include, as appropriate, measures to address shark finning.”
That’s not a binding commitment. The same with the other key environmental targets that campaigners had been banking on: there are vague mentions and some suggestions of targets and regulations, but nothing binding.
The Sierra Club, together with the WWF and the NRDC, have released their own analysis of the documents and they find the current language seriously lacking, so much so that it rolls back the clock to pre-George W. Bush era commitments:
Article SS.4 on Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) — agreements between a set of governments designed to protect the environment — represents a clear step back from the May 2007 bipartisan agreement on trade. In that agreement, Congress and the Bush Administration agreed to “incorporate a specific list of multilateral environmental agreements” in its free trade agreements (FTAs) and to commit Parties to “adopt, maintain, and implement” the laws, regulations, and all other measures to fulfill its obligations under each MEA.
Unfortunately, the leaked text takes a significant step back from the May 2007 agreement. Instead of committing TPP countries to “adopt, maintain, and implement” the laws, regulations, and all other measures to fulfill its obligations under MEAs and subject those obligations to dispute settlement, each TPP country is merely committed to “affirm its commitment” to implement the MEAs to which it is a Party (Article SS.4.1).
The environmental protections aspect of this agreement was always going to be a tough sell as the other nations involved in the deal, among them Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Peru and Vietnam, all oppose different facets of the environmental pact. The agreement was supposed to be finalized by the end of 2013. That didn’t happen. Now, US officials are stressing that this is only a draft text and that, as the text details, they will be pressing for tougher commitments and ensuring that any vague language is cleared up.
The New York Times quotes one US official as saying:
“It is an uphill battle, but we’re pushing hard,” said Michael Froman, the United States trade representative. “We have worked closely with the environmental community from the start and have made our commitment clear.” Mr. Froman said he continued to pursue a robust, enforceable environmental standard that he said would be stronger than those in previous free-trade agreements.
In fairness to the administration, a document released alongside the draft text, called the “Report from the Chairs,” shows that the United States has been lobbying hard for tougher language but that the trade nations involved, in particular Canada and Australia, have refused to give ground in key areas like adhering to tougher restrictions on marine fishing and habitat conservation.
This speaks to a wider problem with bilateral negotiations, that all parties involved have key interests they want to see fulfilled. The problem is that those key interests in this case appear to conflict with those of other nations, creating an impasse that the US negotiators are having trouble getting around.
The United States’ position isn’t helped by the fact that these talks are all taking place behind closed doors, meaning that the media has been kept out. WikiLeakes and other transparency groups have been highly critical of this move and, with these latest revelations, it seems those fears are not entirely unfounded.
The way ahead isn’t clear. There will be another meeting of member nations in the next few months, but unless this language undergoes a serious shift, it appears a unique chance to protect wildlife could slip through our fingers.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.