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 Published in Submerge Magazine December/January Issue
At the triennial two-week summit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) held in Johannesburg in September/October this year, there were mixed fortunes among proposals to protect certain marine species.

The 17th CITES conference (CoP17) was the largest ever of its kind since its inception in 1975 with 152 governments taking decisions on 62 species-listing proposals submitted by 64 countries. In total, over 3,500 people attended the meeting, which also recorded the highest number of side events and intense media interest from every region of the world.

It also represented the greatest amount of marine species in the conference history. Overfishing and the rapacious global aquarium trade were cited as the major factors for the 22 species of marine animals put up for protection.

CITES works by subjecting international trade in specimens of selected species to certain controls. The species covered by CITES are listed in Appendix I or II according to the degree of protection they need.

Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction. Trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances.

Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.

The Conference of the Parties (CoP) is the supreme decision-making body of the Convention and comprises of all its member States, or Parties. At each three-year meeting of the CoP, various Parties submit proposals based on those criteria to amend these two Appendices. Those amendment proposals are discussed and then submitted to a vote. Countries either vote ‘yes’ for protection or ‘no’ depending on biological criteria and other unrelated economic or political factors. A two-thirds majority of votes is required for a successful listing.

For marine species there were mixed fortunes.

The Good News

The inclusion of nine Devil ray species, including the manta, the three Thresher sharks, and the Silky shark were proposed by a variety of countries for a listing under CITES Appendix II, which would result in international trade restrictions to ensure exports are sustainable and legal. The proposals were supported by more than the two-thirds of voting Parties required for adoption with 111 Parties voting in favour of the Silky shark, 30 against and 5 abstaining; 108 Parties voting in favour of the Threshers, 29 against and 5 abstaining and 110 Parties voting in favour, 20 against and 3 abstaining for the rays.

“This is a big win for all these species of sharks and rays as governments around the world will now have to act to reduce the overfishing that threatens them,” said Andy Cornish of the WWF.

Project AWARE, Shark Advocates International, Shark Trust, TRAFFIC, Wildlife Conservation Society, and WWF were working in partnership to promote the ray and shark listing proposals, with support from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

Nautilidae, which are pelagic ancient marine molluscs of the cephalopod family, were also given protective status from overfishing with an Appendix II listing. The mollusc comprises of six living species in two genera but they were being greatly overfished not just for the unique shape and size of their shells, but also for the nacreous inner shell layer, which is used as a pearl substitute. Because of their limited ecological range in the Indo-Pacific and the late onset of their sexual maturity its has made them extremely vulnerable to overfishing.

Fiji, India, Palau and the USA brought the proposal forward which was unanimously accepted with 84 Parties voting in favour, 9 against and 10 abstaining.

The Clarion Angelfish (Holacanthus clarionensis) was also included into Appendix II thanks to range-nation, Mexico, bringing a proposal for its inclusion to the table. The motion passed with 69 Parties voting in favour, 21 against and 15 abstaining.

This species is almost entirely limited to the Revillagigedo Islands in Mexican waters. It has a restricted distribution of an area to be less than 50 km2 but has been collected in vast numbers for the aquarium trade. Clarion angelfish are very brightly coloured, and the species is currently recognized as one of the economically most significant on the market for ornamental aquarium fish. The species is principally sold on the international market (it is estimated that it accounts for 99% of the catches), primarily comprising the United States.

According to the proposal: “Listing of the species in Appendix II will significantly strengthen the current measures of international trade control and the international cooperation activities by requiring the issue of Non-Detriment Findings (NDFs) and associated CITES documentation both from Mexico and from the importing countries, and will provide more exact statistics on the levels of international trade in H. clarionensis, among other considerations.”

The Bad News

The Ocellate river stingray (Potamotrygon motoro) forms part of the family of freshwater stingrays native to South America and hugely popular in the ornamental fish trade, which is considered to have major economic significance to the region.

More than 500,000 specimens were exported from Colombia in the period 1995-2012, and over 36,000 specimens from other countries such as Brazil between 2003 and 2005. The specimens exported from Brazil are sent principally to some 18 countries, notably Germany, the United States and Asian countries and territories such as Taiwan Province of China and Japan, into which more than 600 specimens were imported. Based on it’s biological criteria, current situation of vulnerability and heavy trade this made it eligible for listing in CITES Appendix II.

The proposal was put forward by Bolivia but was withdrawn before a vote after pressure from Brazil and Japan, who are two of Bolivia’s largest trading partners. This highlights the point that the protection of species is not necessarily governed by the scientific criteria but by influences beyond CITES such as unrelated economic and political bi-lateral agreements between nations. Bolivia was clearly weary of offending its trading partners within its regional bloc and beyond.

Had it gone to a vote the Ocellate river stingray would have certainly been uplisted.

The worst news was the fate of the little Banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni), which featured in the October/November edition of Submerge magazine.

The Banggai cardinalfish occupies a total habitat of just 23km2, which makes it one of the most restricted distributions ever documented in a marine fish.

Due to its rarity the Banggai cardinalfish made a big splash on the world aquarium scene. Thanks to its geographical isolation, hobbyists and collectors from around the world quickly realised that as far as marine ornamental fish went, this was the Holy Grail.

The first estimations of the aquarium trade showed that by early 2001 at least 2,000 fish a day – over 700,000 a year – had been taken from the archipelago. Currently 500,000 are hauled out a year with populations now at just 10% of their original numbers in 1995.

The Banggai cardinalfish are very easy to catch. Due to their sedentary nature and tendency to form stationary groups in calm shallow habitats, it is simply a matter of corralling them into nets and placing them in containers for transport to a dealer. Once a group is found, the entire capture takes less than a minute to perform.

The European Union with the support of Fondation Franz Weber, a Swiss organization dedicated to the protection of wildlife around the world, put forward the proposal as the fish easily matched the biological criteria not only for an Appendix II but an Appendix I listing. But again pressure from the range country, this time Indonesia, convinced the 29-nation bloc to withdraw minutes before voting commenced. Indonesia claimed that they would be able to manage the sustainability of the fish themselves, something they have failed to do ever since the fish was listed Endangered under the IUCN Red Listing almost a decade ago.

Like the Ocellate river stingray, an uplisting to Appendix II of the Banggai cardinalfish would have certainly happened if allowed to go for a vote. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), International Union for the Conservation of Nature, TRAFFIC, WWF and the CITES Secretariat had all recommended the proposal be adopted.

According to the latest census of Banggai cardinalfish, there are only 1,5 million individuals left. This means if the Indonesian authorities maintain their lacklustre approach to the fish, by the next CoP in Sri Lanka in three years time there won’t be any more Banggai cardinalfish left to list. According to Alejandro Vagelli, the leading scientists studying the fish, they are all but doomed in the wild.

So, while CITES Secretary General, John Scanlon, said this conference was “a game changer that will be remembered as a point in history when the tide turned in favor of ensuring the survival of our most vulnerable wildlife”, it may be true for some but not for all marine species.