I’m on a plane again - this time heading home. I’m excited to get there - my cousin is getting married this weekend and so there’s lots to celebrate. But truthfully I’ve already been celebrating! Just as my cousins will soon embark on a new chapter in their lives, so have seahorses embarked on a new chapter in our efforts toward their conservation under The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
I still vividly remember finding out that all seahorses had been listed on CITES* Appendix II. It was November 2002 and I was in Chicago, sitting in the lobby of the Shedd Aquarium (a long time Project Seahorse partner). My phone rang. It was Amanda Vincent, Project Seahorse director, calling me from Chile to tell me the proposal had received the 2/3 majority vote needed to be brought into force. I was early in my career and had not been involved with CITES for very long – but I knew this was something to get excited about.
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.
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.
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?
By Dr. Sarah Foster
Project Seahorse researcher Sarah Foster says most of the shrimp we eat are unsustainably harvested. For every kilogram of tropical shrimp caught through trawling the bottom of the ocean, 10 kilograms of other marine life is killed. To protect ocean health, Foster argues that we have to be smart about the shrimp we eat.
How does shrimp harvesting impact our oceans?
Each year around World Oceans Day my family and friends ask what they can do to make a difference to the health of our oceans. My answer: don’t eat shrimp or prawns–unless you know they have been sustainably sourced. Most aren’t.
Where do most of our shrimp come from?
Almost all shrimp you buy or get served come from tropical trawl fisheries. This fishing technique “clear cuts” the ocean floor, catching shrimp and everything else in its path. An average of 10 kilos of other marine life is captured and killed for every kilo of tropical shrimp landed. Some of this “other catch” or “bycatch” is kept and sold, but most is turned into fishmeal or fish oil for fertilizer and aquaculture practices. Many of these species could be sources of food for humans but reducing them to plant or animal feed redirects key protein sources away from the people who need it.
The total area of seabed trawled each year is nearly 150 times the area of forest that is clear cut. We criticize clear cutting forests so why don’t we fuss about clear cutting the ocean floor?
Is farmed shrimp a sustainable alternative?
Most shrimp farming is as bad, if not worse, as bottom trawling. Shrimp ponds have destroyed thousands of kilometres of coastal habitats around the world, particularly mangroves, which serve as nurseries to many marine species and help buffer coastal communities from powerful storms. Shrimp farming also pollutes adjacent waters with chemicals and waste, and the salt from the ponds can turn productive land into a desert.
How can we end ocean clear cutting?
Something has to make trawlers change their practice. By buying and eating sustainably sourced shrimp you can help provide the incentive. Shrimp trawlers around the world now carry Turtle Excluder Devices because the U.S. won’t import their shrimp if they don’t, although implementation remains a huge challenge.
Let’s give fisheries an incentive to protect the rest of the bycatch species. Be smart about the shrimp you eat. Thankfully in Canada this is easier than in many places. Most of Canada’s shrimp fisheries are considered to be ecologically sustainable with minimal bycatch. Canada is home to one of the most sustainable prawn fisheries in the world – the B.C. spot prawn fishery. This fishery uses traps that do not result in as much bycatch or habitat damage. We also have programs like Oceans Wise that tell you if the shrimp you want to buy for the barbecue or order in a restaurant won’t harm the oceans they come from.
Yes, you will pay more for the shrimp you eat but the oceans will pay less for your choices. Your gain is that you will be able to appreciate and eat other marine life for much longer.