New hope for seahorse conservation 18 years after CITES listing- Part 2

Sarah Foster at the CITES CoP18 meeting in Geneva, Switzerland.

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).

As mentioned in my previous blog, all species of seahorse have been listed on Appendix II of the Convention since 2002, with implementation since 2004. This means seahorse trade – for traditional medicines, curiosities and aquarium trade, can continue as long as it is sustainable, legal and monitored. There has been a lot of activity in the 18 years since listing – the tools and information are now well in place to allow considerable progress in implementation. But many, many challenges remain which require the attention of the CITES Parties (member States, 182 plus the EU). Project Seahorse collaborated with the Maldives, Monaco, Sri Lanka and the USA on a document to the every 2-3 year meeting of those Parties. The document summarized progress and challenges, but most critically recommended Decisions to be adopted by the Parties.

The Decisions are essentially the Parties’ work plan for the next few years, each one aiming to address an ongoing challenge in CITES implementation for seahorses. Some are aimed at improving the sustainability of the legal trade. Others are aimed at addressing the large volume of illegal trade. In order for the Decisions to come into force they have to first be adopted by Committee. That adoption then needs to be agreed by the Plenary at the end of the meeting. Only the most contentious issues are re-opened at Plenary.

The seahorse document and Decisions, Document 72 of the agenda, came to the Committee on August 19th. After compelling introductions of the document by Monaco and the USA, several Parties asked to intervene. I held my breath as each one took the floor to speak to the document. To my immense relief there was unanimous support for the document and it’s Decisions – all Parties recognizing the challenges that existed but also the way forward. Although the document still had to pass plenary to be official, I got quite emotional when it passed in Committee. Surprisingly so. Policy can be so systematic and dry in its execution, one can forget the incredible amounts of hard work, collaboration and passion that underpin it all. In this case, the 10 minutes Document 72 spent on the floor was underpinned by nearly 20 years of effort by Project Seahorse. The document itself was at least two years in the making. Because there was unanimous support by the Committee it was not surprising the document also passed in plenary on August 27. But it was no less exciting.

Of course Decisions need to be acted on to be effective – else they won’t be worth more than the paper they are printed on. Thanks to funding from NOAA, Project Seahorse will be taking on and implementing a few of the Decisions. We will be carrying out a study to understand if and how exporting and importing Parties are enforcing existing trade suspensions/bans. We will also be investigating the international live trade in seahorses to understand shifts and patterns since the CITES listing. And we will be leading an international workshop for key exporting and importing Parties, and relevant experts. The workshop will explore practical steps to be taken to ensure full implementation and enforcement of the Appendix II listing for these magical fishes.

The day after the seahorse document passed in Committee, there was a two hour discussion on marine fish listings. A document submitted to the meeting (CoP18 Doc. 12) argued that implementation of marine fish listings had been a failure and there should be a moratorium on future listings until effectiveness of existing listings could be proved. This document did not pass in Committee – with the vast majority of Parties disagreeing with its sentiment and request. No one is doubting there are challenges. This is true with lots of CITES species, not just marine fishes. Document 72 outlines some of those challenges for seahorses. But it also outlines the considerable progress and capacity building that has taken place. And without a doubt we would not have 182 countries agreeing to take collective action for seahorses without CITES. The listing has opened doors and created opportunities that would not exist without CITES. As we heard in the many interventions on Document 12, this is true for many listed fishes – but I’d argue it is especially true for seahorses which do not receive the focused attention of any regional fisheries management organisations (RFMO), the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), or other Conventions (like the Convention for Migratory Species and eels). But even if they did, that shouldn’t matter. It should be all hands on deck as we work to advance conservation of threatened species. And now the hands are back on deck for seahorses. And I’m hopeful and, after a time out to celebrate, ready to get to work.

Dr. Sarah Foster
Global Trade Officer, IUCN SSC Seahorse, Pipefish and Seadragon Specialist Group
Research Associate, Project Seahorse, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries

*CITES: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

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