So here is how it all began.
It was a long time ago and God was in the final stages of assembling all the animals.
Working from a large pile of pre-assembled organs and limbs, She had carefully constructed the land mammals using a similar plan for each (with some small modifications): four legs (some short, some long), two eyes (various shades), two ears (some powerful, some less so), a range of noses, tails and other attributes, and a variety of decorations (hair, stripes, scales and so forth) and brain sizes.
Then She turned to the marine animals. She quickly realized that they did not need legs. Instead she made the fish stream-lined and finned, and able to quickly cut through the dense medium of the water (something she had made earlier and which she liked so much that she filled most of the planet with it).
She briefly experimented with the whales but, after a while, took their little legs away too. They really were not needed in the watery world.
Finally, when God had almost finished, She stopped to review what she had made, but realized that there remained a pile of parts that she had not used. Many legs were left over. So she took these and using groups of five she made the star-fishes, the sea-stars and, rolling five legs into a tight ball and adding some left-over spines, she made the sea-urchins.
God looked at all that She had done, and thought that it was good. She had no idea that the difference She had made between the marine animals and the land ones would lead to so much trouble in the future.
Hundreds of millions of years passed. In the dawn of a new age, the human species (by now globally dominant and hugely destructive) was meeting to review the fate of some of the others, including several marine ones, and maybe it was the difference between the animals in the sea and the animals of the land that led to the differences in the ways that they decided they should be treated.
The meeting was the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) and it met in Doha, in Qatar in March 2010, where a variety of issues were on a packed agenda. Here agreements could be reached to protect species from international trade, and foremost in these issues was the question of the Atlantic blue-fin tuna – a large, fast-moving and delicious species. The proposal came from Monaco and after almost no debate, was profoundly defeated by a vote of 68 to 20. (It would have needed the support of two-thirds of the nations attending the Doha conference to succeed).
In fact there were thirteen proposals for marine species protection at this CITES conference (more than ever before) and all ultimately failed.
There are various tuna species. These tasty fish ultimately find their way into many human meals, from sandwiches to sushi and expensive sashimi. In the last fifty or so years, 90% of the big predatory fish (including the tuna) have vanished from the seas; the seemingly insatiable human appetite for these animals has virtually wiped them out in a single human generation. The Bluefin tuna is so prized that it can sell for several hundred dollars a kilogramme and a single Bluefin weighing in at 262kg fetched a near-record 16.28mn yen ($175,000) at an auction at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market two months before the Doha meeting.
The proposal to protect them at the CITES conference was a last ditch stand to save them and Japan has been largely credited with blocking the proposal. Given Japan’s dependence on marine foods, its ability to corral the votes of many allied nations and its fierce opposition to protection for marine species, as evidenced by its actions concerning whales and whaling, this was not perhaps surprising.
The loosers at this particular CITES conference, in addition to the tuna, included the sharks and the corals. Perhaps even more surprising was that the polar bear proposal from the United States also failed. (The bear is very much an animal of the frozen sea, even if it has four legs, and maybe its honorary marine status helped to crash the trade ban proposal). Given the bear’s status as the most obvious and immediate victim of climate change, the failure of countries to agree to address the trade threat to its survival is all the more remarkable. This also bodes badly for other species which may have their survival truncated by climate change combined with international trade.
A few species did gain new protection: an endangered salamander from Iran and the Bolivian rhinoceros beetle were added to the lists of the protected. (Japan presumably has no interest in eating either in the immediate future.) A proposal for a one-off sale of elephant ivory from Zambia and Tanzania was defeated and more action was called for to protect rhinoceroses, but these positive developments for the terrestrial animals stand in stark contrast to the thirteen defeated pro-conservation proposals.
Perhaps God is looking down and wondering where She went wrong. Perhaps She is watching the tuna merchants hording the flesh of these increasingly expensive fishes in their freezers against the day when extinction will make their stores even more valuable and a tuna sandwich will become a luxury for the privileged few alone to nibble on.