By Regan Doherty
DOHA (Reuters) - Trade interests trumped conservation at a U.N. wildlife conference at which proposals to step up protection for polar bears, bluefin tuna, coral and sharks all fell flat, delegates said.
Short-term economic concerns hampered efforts to restrict trade in several lucrative marine species at the 175-nation Convention on International trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which wrapped up a two-week meeting in Doha, Qatar, on Thursday.
"As soon as big money gets involved, the 's' of science is crossed out by two vertical stripes," CITES Secretary General Willem Wijnstekers told reporters, meaning it becomes "$cience" spelt with a dollar sign.
"There is an enormous economic interest in catching and trading these species, and a CITES piece of paper is really a nuisance (for traders)."
Resistance from Asian countries, particularly Japan, to ban trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna received most attention. The fish is prized as sushi but stocks have plunged more than 80 percent since 1970, according to CITES.
Japan imports about 80 percent of the catch, mostly from the European Union. Delegates rejected the proposed ban after Tokyo argued that lax regulation of catches is the main problem.
"It's been a difficult conference from a conservation standpoint, perhaps because of the economic environment," U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland told Reuters. CITES meets once every 2-1/2 years.
After a conference that denied protection for many marine species, delegates on the final day even overturned a decision to step up trade restrictions for Porbeagle sharks, hit by overfishing in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
Calls to step up trade curbs on seven other types of shark, including hammerheads caught as ingredients in shark fin soup in Asia, had already failed earlier in the talks.
"It is shameful that many CITES governments ignored science in favor of political gain," said Carlos Drews, head of WWF's Species Program.
Susan Lieberman, director of international policy at the Pew Environment Group, said: "We cannot continue to empty our oceans without consequence."
Amid the disappointments for conservation advocates, there were some successes. Kenya scored a victory with its proposal to combat the escalation of rhino poaching by placing the animals on a protective list.
Rhinos in countries such as India, South Africa, Nepal and Zimbabwe are killed by organized crime groups that control the smuggling of rhino horns to the far east of Asia, where they are sold on the black market for thousands of dollars, CITES says.
Calls by Zambia and Tanzania to relax a trade ban on elephant ivory were rejected. But a U.S. proposal to protect polar bears, which thrust the issue of climate change onto the agenda of the conference for the first time, was defeated.
(Editing by Alister Doyle and Noah Barkin)