The only UN body with the power to ban trade in endangered animals and plants is meeting in Doha with bluefin tuna, African elephants and polar bears on the docket.
Besides the proposal to stop cross-border commerce in bluefin, fiercely contested by fish-loving Japan, the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will also vote on less stringent measures to protect several types of shark and their look-a-likes.
Up to 73 million of the open-water predators are harvested every year for their fins, a prestige food eaten mainly in China and Chinese communities around the world.
About 120 of the 175 member states are set to gather for the 13-day CITES conference, the first to be held in the Middle East.
Ivory, polar bears on agenda
Among the 41 proposals on the table, one put forward by Tanzania and Zambia would seek to reopen trade in ivory, currently under a nine-year moratorium that started in 2008.
Most other African nations oppose the move, backing a competing measure that would extend the ban another decade.
Polar bears are also up for so-called APPENDIX I listing, which triggers a total ban on international trade.
The meeting seeks to strike a sustainable balance between protection and commercial exploitation for thousands of species.
Measures must receive a two-thirds majority of those nations present to be adopted, and are then enforced by laws passed in member nations.
After an opening ceremony at 1200 GMT on Saturday (2300 AEDT) delegates will consider boosting the CITES budget which – at less
the $US5 million ($A5.46 million) – is by far the smallest of all the UN conventions.
Species are listed on three levels according to the degree of protection they need.
530 animals covered
Going into the meeting, APPENDIX I covers about 530 animals – including tigers, great apes, snow leopards and sea turtles – and more than 300 plants.
Bluefin Tuna has been proposed in Doha for such top level protection.
The vast majority of the 33,500 species covered by CITES are listed in APPENDIX II, which covers species “not necessarily threatened with extinction” but exploited in an unsustainable manner.
Pink and red coral – harvested mainly in the Mediterranean for jewellery – is under consideration for this more limited degree of protection. A similar proposal failed at the last convention in 2007.
Several hundred APPENDIX III species are protected by national laws.