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?

On being part of the world’s largest conservation team

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

It is truly wondrous that the world has managed to create a global action group for conservation, one that includes 1200 governments and non-governmental organizations. I am so involved in this club, called the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) that I seldom step back and really look at it. But I was recently reminded not to take it for granted. It does amazing work, particularly by co-ordinating thousands of volunteer experts in animal and plant conservation into a strong force for nature

The IUCN team of volunteer experts is much in evidence at CITES meetings on regulating exports of endangered species (see my blog on May 2nd). The meetings are packed full of countries and public interest/advocacy groups. They tackle a huge array of very complex issues that need masses of information about lots of species involved. There is a lot of knowledge in the hall. But a great deal of the information and influence in these meetings comes from behind the IUCN name plate, where staff and volunteer experts work together to get it right for wildlife.

I love being part of the IUCN group. At my most recent CITES meeting, IUCN was able to cover the most critical agenda issues in wildlife trade thanks to help from volunteer experts on big catscrocodilesprimatessnakessharkstortoises and freshwater turtles — and seahorses. At such gatherings, IUCN provides factual input without pushing any particular agenda. Because of this, we are commonly asked for advice, invited to offer our views, and always respected for our expertise.

Contributing through the IUCN is rewarding, even if things don’t always work out quite as hoped. As IUCN is so trusted, we are often able to influence what countries decide at CITES without ever insisting on our opinion. The corollary, though, is that sometimes we just have to bottle our annoyance and live with a country’s surprising behavior and/or CITES’ quirky decisions. I certainly had to cope with that mixture of good and frustrating at the last meeting. But I’m so glad at least to have a decent chance to change things through IUCN.

Three more countries required to take action for seahorses

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

Good. Two more seahorses species should get better help, thanks to the recent CITES technical meeting for animals.

At this meeting, CITES expressed Urgent Concern about Guinea and Senegal’s exports of West African seahorses (Hippocampus algiricus - photo right) and Thailand’s exports of three spotted seahorses (Hippocampus trimaculatus). The upshot is that these countries have been given some recommendations (which must be followed) on how to move their exports of these species towards sustainable levels. It’s a good early step in the long, long journey that will be needed to secure the future of these seahorses, with both species judged as Vulnerable to extinction. 

Guinea and Senegal are huge exporters of algiricus. Vast numbers are caught in non-selective fishing gear (especially seine nets) and hundreds of thousands are sold dried to east Asia every year. CITES has decided that Guinea and Senegal must take more responsibility for these exports, and has drawn up a list of recommendations for both countries. Project Seahorse is very glad that we can help here; Kate West and Andres Cisneros-Montemayor recently carried out the only fishery and trade surveys of seahorses in these two countries. Kate and Andres also had a first look at algiricus biology – there are no papers on this species – and we’ll also give that info to Guinea and Senegal.

Fisheries in Senegal.  Photo by Andres Cisneros-Montemayor/Project Seahorse.

Fisheries in Senegal. Photo by Andres Cisneros-Montemayor/Project Seahorse.

Thailand has been exporting more than 99% of all trimaculatus in international trade, with an average of well over a million animals leaving the country each year. This seems to be more than the population can support, but Thailand needs to do the work to analyse this properly. Such analysis may be tricky because most of the seahorses are caught accidentally by the huge number of trawls that operate off Thailand. Happily, Project Seahorse is able to help here too. We’ve been formally collaborating with the Thai Department of Fisheries for the past two years, as it works to manage exports of three other seahorse species. So we can help provide decent information about seahorse biology, fisheries and trade. Thailand, of course, will have to decide how to apply this knowledge to its trade challenges.

Fisheries in Thailand.   Photo by Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse.

Fisheries in Thailand.  Photo by Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse.

CITES gave the three countries much the same set of recommendations, all of which are essentially requirements. The main focus is on mapping, enforcement and monitoring. All countries need to know more about where the seahorses live relative to conservation threats and areas with fisheries/ocean management. Then the countries need to strengthen enforcement of their often really good management measures, such as the ban on trawling within 5.4 km of the coast of Thailand. Finally, the countries need to track seahorses catches - and the effort it took to catch them – for quite a few years to find out what is happening to the wild populations. The results of this work will guide next steps in conservation.

On other new seahorse matters, CITES agreed to ask all member countries to explain how they decide on appropriate levels of exports for the lined seahorse, Hippocampus erectus. And CITES addressed some confusion in the naming of seahorse species. Much more needs to be done on clearing up species distinctions and identification, however.

All in all, Project Seahorse involvement with CITES and seahorses looks likely to continue for quite some time. For one thing, we are waiting to hear whether Thailand adequately addressed CITES recommendations from two years ago. For another, we are working with Viet Nam to help them address the ban on seahorse exports – for one species only – that CITES imposed last year. This was the first ever ban under any international agreement for any marine fish, so is an interesting case study. Then there’s the new work ---.

I found this CITES meeting both interesting and frustrating. A few countries started scrutinising the recommendations for seahorses a lot more carefully, as they realised we were setting precedent for other marine fishes, including sharks . As a result, some sensible and focused advice was diluted into broad generalities that will be harder for countries to grasp. It will be interesting to see how their national agencies respond to the hard won recommendations: will they try to make change or while they wriggle as much as possible ?

Supporting seahorses through CITES - here we go again...

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

Hippocampus kuda . One of the three seahorse species under CITES Review of Significant Trade.  Photo by Luc Eeckhaut/Guylian Seahorses of the World.

Hippocampus kuda. One of the three seahorse species under CITES Review of Significant Trade. Photo by Luc Eeckhaut/Guylian Seahorses of the World.

ere we go: CITES again. Every year or so, several hundred people sit down at a technical meeting to see whether international trade controls are doing any good for animals. It’s a somewhat crazy process, full of potential and limitations. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, is responsible for ensuring sustainability in exports in 4827 animal species. It works more or less well for different countries and different species. Our challenge at this meeting (called the Animals Committee) is to figure out which countries and which species need the most support – and how to help.

We came to the meeting to support seahorses, of course. We also want to get involved in some broader issues that range from captive breeding to training for Customs officers. But the focus is seahorses, the first marine fish brought under CITES regulation since 1976. We are already working closely with Thailand and Vietnam, which are having trouble ensuring that exports of some seahorses don’t exceed what wild populations can bear. Now it seems that Thailand might need help with another species. And we might have to get involved in West Africa too.

For the first time, I have another seahorse wizard along. Sarah Foster is also on the Project Seahorse team and has spent years working with CITES but this is the first time she has come to a formal meeting. It will be interesting to see what she makes of it all ---

At the moment, we are ploughing through the masses and masses of documents, coded with letters and numbers that refer to remote parts of the CITES experience. Most of them are very dull and somewhat obscure. But we really need to understand them well and figure out how they apply to our immediate conservation concerns. Behind every animal name in this mound of paper is a spectacular, quirky or critical species. One that we just might lose forever unless CITES does its work well.

CITES, conservation, and geopolitics

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

There it is.  I have survived another week of UN negotiations on wildlife trade.  And emerged content.

I’ve been in Geneva to contribute to the technical working group on animals for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.  It meets to execute the will of the 175 nations that are signatories to CITES, trying to make sure that international trade does not harm wild populations of animals and plants.

It’s a bit hard to explain these meetings.  You spend a lot of time watching global geopolitics played out over some poor quail or shark.  The meetings are full of process and procedure that can slow things to a glacial pace.  Many of the issues seem hardly to have moved since I was last involved seven years ago.  Some are clearly going backwards.  But an important few are actually creeping in the right direction.  Read up on the Saker falcon, for example. 

It takes a while to get your head around the fact that each and every one of the 175 signatory nations to CITES (the Parties) has the right to do more or less exactly what it wants.  You can negotiate and you can nudge but you sure as heck can’t order any nation around.  Nor would you want to try.  Any nation that gets fed up can just withdraw from the issue or the Convention.  So the approach has to be softly, softly, working to support their aspirations.  Your persuasive capacity comes from the fact that signatory nations want to be seen as good global citizens, doing the right thing.

Marine fishes are some of the most controversial issues that CITES and its technical Animals Committee ever tackles.  Many nations are apprehensive about treating fish as just another form of wildlife, fearful that this might lead to onerous restrictions with high economic or social costs.  Yet again this meeting, many nations claimed that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization was the appropriate body to deal with fisheries issues, even though (or maybe because?) the FAO has no regulatory capacity at all and has very limited or no interest in many fish species.

Against this background, I am happy that the Animals Committee agreed that nations should be asked to explain their rationale for allowing current high volumes of seahorse exports. The seahorses were the first marine fishes of commercial importance to be brought under CITES management in recent times, and continue to set precedent.  Countries all over the Indo-Pacific will now be asked for the scientific basis for their exports of six seahorse species.  And signatory nations in West Africa will need to justify their export levels of the West African seahorse (H. algiricus), newly in trade and already exported at about 600,000 animals per year.  

Given the outcome, it was well worth being here.  I did rather wonder about investing a week in these interminable proceedings.  But the solid science and strong trade data that Project Seahorse always produces definitely helped convince signatory nations to begin this trade review.  They listened and asked questions and dissented but agreed in the end to do what is right for our quirky fishes.  That should give us a chance to figure out how well CITES is working for these seven seahorse species and what more we need to do to help.  Plus I got a quick snapshot update in current global geopolitics, played out at a snail’s pace that enthralled even as it exasperated.

I appreciated being part of the IUCN delegation.  This strong intergovernmental organization has a great record of credible evidence-based contributions to CITES. 

For the report on the Working Group on the Review of Significant Trade, go to

For more on the 25th meeting of the CITES Animals Committee in general, go to

Dr. Amanda Vincent is the Director of Project Seahorse.

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.