Getting excited about export regulation … really!!

By Sarah Foster

In May I had a really rich experience in the world of marine fish trade.  It was truly fun. I was the point person on the Project Seahorse team tasked with organizing 14 great minds (if I include mine !) to converge on Seattle for a “think tank” on regulating exports in marine fishes of conservation concern.  A career highlight for sure to be in the company of such dedicated people!  Our job was to find common challenges and opportunities for managing wildlife trade among seahorses, sharks, rays, humphead wrasse, European eels, and sturgeons.  These very cool fishes are united as the first wave of fishes to come under global regulations, requiring that no export threaten wild populations.  While that sounds good, the challenge, as ever, lies in the implementation … and that was our focus.  

CITES and marine fishes think tank in Seattle, 2016. 

CITES and marine fishes think tank in Seattle, 2016. 

The global framework for these regulations is called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, CITES.  It’s better known for controls on rhino horn or orchids than marine fishes, which is why our expertise matters.  We addressed myriad questions, in our think tank, all directed at the Big Issue: How can CITES best ensure long-term viable populations of these fishes, for this generation and those to come? 

Our focus was on moving things along to really improve implementation of CITES’ many good requirements, to achieve stronger populations.  So we held ourselves accountable for actually getting work done during the meeting.  The challenge of doing rather than just talking produced a push to define work that could be completed before the next global CITES meeting this September.  We got down to writing persuasive policy pieces, developing draft decisions (actions) for a vote by the 182 CITES Parties (member countries) and determining what campaigns might merit engagement.

One of our key discussions was about how to know if CITES is “working” – in other words, how to assess the impact of CITES or any management intervention on the threatened marine species of the world.  While there are quite a few surveys of fish populations or (more commonly) fisheries, they are patchy in their species coverage while also being erratic and/or inconsistent and/or full of gaps.  Even more worryingly, the documentation seldom measures fishing or trade effort.  So are the numbers referring to individual vessels or the entire fishery, to trips or hours fishing, to days or years? All this vagueness makes it tough to figure out what is really happening, and whether management or exports controls are doing any good.  

To be clear, I’m absolutely convinced that we can take important conservation action with the data we do have.  There’s no doubt, however, that we really need to see some robust monitoring, based around data that can be quickly and easily collected and analysed.  We also need to ensure that data collected in different places, at different times and by different people can be readily combined and/or compared.  These protocols should be straightforward – easily applied by the well-meaning people carrying the monitoring torch. We are talking the basic stuff here – nothing fancy, nothing sexy, but highly essential. 

If we can show there are more fish in the sea thanks to CITES and other conservation tools then we’ll know we are on the right track.  If there aren’t, well, we’ll need to adjust what we do and keep on trucking.  It’s called adaptive management for a reason … and monitoring is a critical component of the feedback loop.

So many thanks to the Paul G Allen Family Foundation for funding this wonderful think tank.  It was one of those gatherings that just worked.  We came away energized, with much to do … but also much already accomplished.