Some thoughts on CITES

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

So, how can we ensure that the commercial trade of marine life doesn’t damage wild populations? I am writing this while sitting in a discussion group with a bunch of other scientists, most of whom who have spent years working with CITES, a UN convention that controls exports of species that are — or could become — threatened by international trade.

It follows on from a symposium (co-organized by Project Seahorse’s Dr. Sarah Foster) that laid out the case studies on CITES and seahorses, sturgeons, sharks, queen conch, and tuna. Exports of the first four are regulated under CITES while proposals to control international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna were defeated last year amid great controversy.

The general consensus in the room is that we want to focus broadly on achieving conservation goals, not just on establishing trade controls per se. Even so, we really do wish that CITES’ Parties would get past their anxieties about listing marine fishes of commercial importance. After all, the point of CITES regulations is simply to ensure that marine fish exports are sustainable. How can that be problematic?

Yet a significant minority of the 175 countries that are signatories to CITES continues to argue that other intergovernmental agencies ought to be left to manage fisheries, even though (or especially because?) no other agreements have the necessary teeth to secure action. In effect, they deny that marine fishes are wildlife, too.

One university scientist asks us, very reasonably, what good has come of CITES controls on the marine fish trade: Are fish populations healthier as a result?  He is new to the process and perhaps slightly daunted by the rapid exchange of acronyms and political processes in our discussion.  More to the point, he really does need to know what CITES can do and whether he should give time and expertise to supporting it. All such policy work is, after all, voluntary for university academics.

Everybody marshals their thoughts and we begin to recount some positive stories: the CITES listing of queen conch has led to much more sustainable trade; CITES listing of seahorses has led to a much healthier aquarium trade in these fishes; CITES listings have generated plans of action for shark species; CITES listing has generated management measures for the Napoleon wrasse.

Even tuna, which CITES voted not to control, has benefited from subsequent tighter quotas by their management organization.  All this upbeat sharing of stories runs contrary to the mood at many CITES meetings, and somewhat surprises a colleague who actually works for the Convention.

We all leave the room more positive and enthusiastic about the prospects of CITES becoming an effective tool for marine conservation. I think we amazed ourselves by how many good things we could report, and were re-energized for our work with this valuable, if flawed, UN Convention. Personally, I felt the familiar buzz that comes from tackling real issues in marine conservation with exciting colleagues.

Dr. Amanda Vincent is the director of Project Seahorse.