Idealism tempered by my first CITES meeting

By Dr. Sarah Foster

Note: This post marks the last of our reports from the 2014 CITES annual technical gathering in Veracruz, Mexico. To read more, visit the "Commentary" section of this blog.

Every now and then you have an experience that really gets you thinking. Participating in my first UN meeting has certainly done that for me. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) has an annual technical gathering to sort out challenges in regulating annual exports of species for conservation.  Seahorses pose plenty of such challenges with a huge global trade of tens of millions of animals — and declining populations. We need to make CITES an effective tool for their conservation, to complement everything else we are doing.

Amanda Vincent (left) and Sarah Foster (right) at the 27th CITES Animals Committee Meeting in Veracruz, Mexico.

Amanda Vincent (left) and Sarah Foster (right) at the 27th CITES Animals Committee Meeting in Veracruz, Mexico.

After long days at this meeting I retain lots of hope that CITES can make a difference. But I’m struck by two reality checks that are tempering my idealism. That’s inevitable, perhaps, given how much I expected from just this one tool, but it’s still sad.

My first reality check is that CITES seems to address symptoms more than causes for many species declines, including seahorses.  The principle of CITES seems simple enough – Parties should not export more seahorses than wild populations can bear. So we just need to figure out how many we can take out of the water, and keep trade levels there. Except it is not that easy.  CITES is only about international trade and not really about actual exploitation.  The hope for most species is that limits on exports will create limits on how many are taken from the wild.  The problem is that most seahorses are caught as bycatch in trawl fisheries.  So caps on export levels will not, by themselves, reduce catch rates. We can make this point at the CITES meeting but – in a CITES context - we cannot tell Parties how they should go about managing their fisheries, including the destructive and non-selective trawling that is the root cause of the problem.  So we are often skirting around the real issues, removed from the heart of the matter.  We need to find innovative and yet politically acceptable ways to bridge this gap and help CITES move seahorse trade toward sustainability.

My second reality check is that we cannot tell Parties what to do. No way, no how. But they want our advice. And we know quite a bit about what needs to be done! CITES is working to support Thailand in moving its seahorse exports towards sustainability.  This is pretty tricky because most are caught in trawls (see above) and seahorses are just not priority species in Thailand. More problematic still, fixing this will need CITES to try some new approaches, beyond the usual recipes. Amanda and I were delighted to be asked to draft new recommendations for Thailand.  After two years of assisting its Department of Fisheries, we have learned a lot about what needs to be done.  So I found it really very frustrating that our gentle attempts at innovation were set aside in favour of formulaic phrases. We had an amazing chance to give Parties guidance for eventual success but instead we had to beat around the bush, respecting the politics of the CITES process.

I recognize that my gripes are probably realities of an international UN convention.  Still, it all has me thinking that such protocols are really hampering support for thousands of species that would beg for help if they could.  How can we best make progress in this context - carefully, indirectly, vaguely and without telling anyone what to do?  And do seahorses have time to wait for us to work this out?