Reliving the joys of CITES

My mind keeps dancing back to ten momentous days in September/October last year, when the world came together in Johannesburg, South Africa to figure out how best to look after trade in endangered species.  So much got done and so much remains to be done.  The conference in Johannesburg was really all about helping guide the 182 countries that are members of CITES  to take active measures for conservation.  Sarah Foster  and I were part of the powerful IUCN  delegation, providing the technical information that might influence countries’ decisions.

The really big news out of Johannesburg is that regulating exports of marine fish species has become normal, part of the mainstream business of CITES.  I’ve been involved with CITES for 18 years, all 18 of them filled with controversy about whether marine fishes could be treated like other species.  Over and over again, I’ve had to sit through countless arguments that marine fishes were somehow an exception not covered by the rules, not really wildlife at all.  Over and over again, friends and I have countered these positions, pointing out that marine fishes deserved the same trade protection as elephants, parrots and cacti.  Going into Johannesburg, we had readied ourselves for yet another bruising set of challenges.  But there, suddenly we found the wind had shifted and we could rely on far more support than we had realized.  I am so proud that our work with seahorses had significantly helped catalyse this evolution.

From a Project Seahorse point of view, the huge news from South Africa was Thailand’s decision to end exports in seahorses, which was announced at a CITES management meeting in Johannesburg just before the Conference started.  We were very happy to see focused attention on seahorses, particularly from Thailand, which is the source of three-quarters of all recorded seahorse exports.  We do, however worry about what this export suspension will actually do to reduce pressure on wild populations.  Huge numbers of seahorses will still be caught in Thailand, accidentally by trawlers and other fishing gear, and die.  Moreover, a large number of seahorses will still be landed and could enter the illegal wildlife trade.  So our work is far from done, and we will be urging Thailand to do more for seahorses and ocean conservation.

Building off our work with seahorses, Project Seahorse did a whole lot in South Africa to support sharks and rays.  Four shark species (thresher sharks and silky shark)  and all nine devil ray (mobula) species  had been proposed for addition to something called Appendix II, a list of animals and plants that need export regulation to secure their future.  Having set precedent with our seahorse work for CITES – they were the first marine fishes to be placed on Appendix II – we had a lot to offer our colleagues who were shark conservation wizards.  Nor were we alone in that.  The many formal and informal alliances for sharks were full of very experienced and extraordinarily able people, all working flat out for these remarkable fishes.  The main Project Seahorse role was to highlight the overall CITES experience with marine fishes, and the progress made towards effective trade regulation of these creatures.  We were very lucky in having Paul G Allen Family Foundation  support to write briefing documents for CITES  and catalyse collective CITES action by marine fish wizards.

As part of our efforts to reach government decision-makers, Project Seahorse hosted two formal panel events at the Johannesburg meeting, both of them involving top-flight experts and attracting hundreds of delegates. The first focused on extracting lessons about implementation of previous marine fish listings on Appendix II, with case studies from all taxa promoting hope.  The second took a new tack in connecting Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) and Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing.  In general, terrestrial wildlife is treated entirely separately from aquatic wildlife (fishes and invertebrates). So our panelists got people thinking about how uniting these two solitudes might do more to constrain illegal trade.


While attendance at our panels confirmed a huge interest in CITES and marine fishes, we still worried about whether the requisite two-thirds of countries would agree to export regulations for the thresher and silky sharks. Part of our anxiety arose from the FAO recommendation not to list the sharks.  Even the CITES Secretariat had suggested that thresher sharks should not be listed.  How much would that influence things?  We were more confident of the devil ray proposals, which had also been endorsed by both the FAO  and the CITES Secretariat.


The actual votes on marine fishes – which happened all in a rush at the end of eight long, long days of deliberation – turned out to be a very happy anticlimax.  Japan made its familiar objections, ones we have addressed in our 2014 paper.  FAO made its report, challenging the quality of the shark data used in the proposals.  Competing views were aired and heard or ignored.  The Parties voted and there, voila, it was over.  And over in fine style, with nearly 80% of the votes in support of the shark listings, far more than the two-thirds we needed (and had often failed to get for other species).  CITES now had global export regulations in place for three thresher shark species, silky sharks and nine devil ray species.

The marine fish people in the room celebrated, albeit in a somewhat muted fashion, exhausted by our efforts and drained by days of policy minutiae.  Many of us, too, realized that this was just the beginning of the road, and that conservation success depends on what happens after the votes are over and the delegates have returned home.

Bright lights fade and public attention shifts.  Happily, though, many of the most determined and brightest people in conservation will stay the course for the years ahead, constantly seeking solutions for marine fishes.  We’re proud to be among them, doing our best for seahorses and using those lessons to help sharks and other species.

Our sincere thanks to the Paul G Allen Family Foundation for its wonderful support for our CITES work … and to Guylian Chocolates Belgium, our ever-reliable and hugely valued partner on marine conservation.  We also thank the great contributors to the CITES and Marine Fishes Think Tank in May 2017.


[1] Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora,

[2] International Union for the Conservation of Nature,, which includes 1066 non-governmental organization and 217 states and government agencies from 161 countries.