New hope for seahorse conservation 18 years after CITES listing

Hippocampus kuda. Photo by Bruno van Saen/Guylian Seahorses of the World

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. The listing meant that all CITES Parties (member countries, now 182) would be obliged to ensure that their international exports of seahorses were sustainable, legal and monitored. By adding seahorses to Appendix II – the first marine fishes to be added to that list – the Parties had finally acknowledged that fish are wildlife too. But for the listing to be effective in addressing the threats seahorses face, from fisheries and trade around the world, it would have to be more than a paper promise – it would have to be implemented.

It turns out that moving from listing to implementation is not automatic. Truthfully, it doesn’t seem much changed for seahorses the first few years after the listing came into effect (in May 2004); I think we were expecting CITES Parties just to step up and meet their responsibilities but it turns out that the Parties actually needed some nudging. Seahorse trade continued from most historically important source countries – some with the required CITES permits, some without. Finally, after several years of ongoing and high volume trade, CITES decided to probe whether exports were meeting a key CITES provision – that they not be detrimental to species survival in the wild. Starting in 2008, CITES asked countries with high volumes of documented exports how they were ensuring this provision was being met. It turns out almost all countries were, in fact, struggling to meet their obligation to sustainable trade.

At this point Project Seahorse leapt into action. We are respected as the global experts on seahorse conservation and management, reflected in our role as the IUCN SSC Specialist Group for Seahorses, Pipefish and Seadragons. So the CITES Secretariat and Parties alike turned to us to provide information and tools and to build capacity toward improved implementation of the CITES listing. We carried out fisheries and trade surveys in key source and destination countries, generated a toolkit for assessing sustainable trade, created easy to use species identification and monitoring guidelines, among other things. Our aim in all efforts was to help Parties to ensure trade became sustainable, legal and monitored. We are confident that the tools are now in place and the information is available to get started. But in spite of our efforts, most countries have decided simply to end legal exports rather than manage exports for sustainability. Others have had trade suspended by CITES. All in all, the countries that were responsible for 96% of documented exports no longer have a legal trade. Yet trade continues. Our most recent research carried out in Hong Kong revealed that such countries with bans are still the primary sources of seahorses in trade. It seems the struggle to implement CITES continues.

That brings us to today. It is 18 years later and I am no longer new to CITES, and neither are seahorses. Knowing now how CITES works, I realised several years ago it was time to get seahorses back on the formal agenda. Every few years CITES Parties get together to decide their work plan for the next 2-3 years. This gathering, called the meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP), decides on new species listings – the part of the meeting that gets the most attention – but also looks at how to improve implementation of existing listings. Critically, Parties use the CoP to agree to Decisions; these are the actions they will take to address challenges, fill gaps in understanding, and so on.

The USA was the proponent Party for the seahorse listing 18 years ago, and now – together with the Maldives, Monaco and Sri Lanka – the USA is poised to move the needle on seahorse conservation once again. These four Parties have collaborated with Project Seahorse to submit a document to the CoP that proposes possible new Decisions. The Decisions are designed to support Parties to move legal trade toward sustainability and reduce the scale and impact of illegal trade. If adopted, the Decisions will be a huge step forward for seahorses. That said, their true impact will, as ever, come from effective implementation and follow through.

I am actually on a plane to the 18th CoP as I write this – and I am once again very excited about what might happen for seahorses at a CITES meeting. But it is with a heavy heart that my travels are taking me to Geneva instead of Sri Lanka, where the CoP was scheduled to occur this past May. The terrorist attacks that took place in Colombo on Easter weekend put an end to that plan. The attacks were a huge loss for a country getting ready to celebrate 10 years of peace, and more specifically for the people who had worked very hard for many years to bring the CoP to their beautiful country. The attacks were also a stark reminder that we live in uncertain times and that human behaviour is a key determinant in conservation progress. But I also go to the meeting with hope. The problems facing our planet are not going to be solved by one person, one country, alone. We need to work together, and CITES is an excellent example of countries doing just that to help address some serious challenges. I had goosebumps sitting in among the Party delegates and species experts at CoP17 and will undoubtedly have them this time again – the source being a renewed hope not just for seahorses, but for the world overall.

(Read Part two here)


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