Implementing CITES Appendix II listings for marine fishes: a novel framework and a constructive analysis

Executive Summary

  • The global Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has significant potential to help improve the population status of wild animals and plants subject to international trade, and thus to help reconcile conservation of these species with sustainable use.
  • The challenge for the 184 Parties to CITES (183-member countries plus the European Union) is to implement their obligations for species that have been added to the CITES Appendices. No international commercial trade is allowed for species listed on Appendix I and trade in species listed on Appendix II must be regulated for sustainability and legality; all shipments must be accompanied by a CITES document issued by the Party’s CITES Management Authority.
  • Early proposals to add fully marine fishes to Appendix II aroused opposition from some quarters because of their economic importance, and a lack of awareness of threats facing these species. It was, therefore, a notable change when the first three taxa (seahorses, some sharks and humphead wrasse) were only added in 2002 and 2004.
  • Twenty years later, we explore how Parties are meeting their Appendix II obligations for marine fishes, which are to limit export trade to (i) levels that are not harmful to wild populations (called making non-detriment findings or NDFs) and (ii) to animals that have been legally acquired (called making legal acquisition findings or LAFs), as well as (iii) ensuring that live specimens are humanely transported, and (iv) monitoring trade.
  • We have developed a novel framework to explore how CITES Parties are implementing Appendix II listings, assessing progress on four levels:
    (1) Technical outputs (tools and capacity building): non-government stakeholders and governments develop products, tools, and activities to support implementation of CITES obligations by governments;
    (2) Policy outcomes (governance changes): governments use technical outputs (Level 1 implementation) to adopt changes – in policies, rules, regulations, legislation, data deployment, and management protocols – with consequences that are measurable but not at the field or population levels;
    (3) Field outcomes (practical changes): governments act on Level 2 policy outcomes, often using Level 1 technical outputs, to make changes in practical activities on vessels and at docks, traders’ facilities, Customs sheds, courts, etc.;
    (4) Population impacts (biological changes): wild populations respond to field outcomes (Level 3 implementation) with lower mortalities, increasing numbers, better demographic balance or other biological improvements in their status.
  • While Level 1 and Level 2 progress is important, they also have limitations. Progress on Level 3 is vital if we are to improve the viability of wild populations. The goal is to measure and assess Level 4 responses, to the greatest extent possible. Nonetheless, Level 3 field outcomes will sometimes serve as proxy indicators for Level 4 population changes.
  • Using this new framework, we analysed progress on implementing Appendix II listings for seahorses, sharks and humphead wrasse, drawing on our 20-30 years on the front lines of CITES action as well as on papers and reports.
  • Our analysis reveals that CITES listings have resulted in many technical outputs (Level 1), a number of positive policy outcomes (Level 2), and a few Level 3 outcomes. Yet it is the field outcomes (Level 3) that will promote population impacts (Level 4).
  • In our assessments, we find that seahorses have benefited least from the Appendix II listing while the story has been more encouraging – although still very incomplete – for sharks and humphead wrasse.
  • Twenty years after listing seahorses, only two Parties have shared NDFs – both for live seahorses – even though tens of millions of dried seahorses are traded each year. The irony is that seahorses were the first marine fishes for which CITES asked Parties to justify their exports and generate positive NDFs. Most countries exporting large volumes of seahorses now have trade suspensions that, partly because of huge seahorse catches in nonselective fishing gear, have resulted in vast illegal trade. The CITES listing does seem to have prompted a significant transition to captive breeding for the small live trade. We are not aware of any Parties’ LAFs.
  • After a slow start, the listed sharks have enjoyed notable public, media, industry and political interest, with substantial amounts of money supporting widespread engagement with CITES across many Parties. This has led to development of numerous useful tools, an encouraging array of published NDFs, quite a few LAFs, and a plethora of management policies. It is unclear from available information how well these many endeavours have translated into field outcomes and practical change, but there are glimmers of hope.
  • As soon as they were listed, humphead wrasse benefited from a rapid narrowing of the trade to just one exporting Party, which made an NDF based on quotas, size limits, and transport restrictions (but apparently did not make an LAF). The sole importing Party has played an active role in seeking sustainability, enforcing trade restrictions to reduce the trade in wild humphead wrasse substantially. However, a recent change to allow exports of large numbers of ranched humphead wrasse has undermined the encouraging progress and raised many concerns.
  • At present, for all three taxa, the implementation level with the most activity (Level 1) was also most removed from the fish populations (Level 4). Yet, the Levels need not be addressed sequentially: for example, greater enforcement of existing laws (Level 3) would alone often make a considerable difference to wild populations (Level 4), even were nothing more added at Levels 1 or 2.
  • CITES Parties and conservation organizations/donors need to take a clear-eyed view of implementation, appreciating that Level 1 and 2 activities are necessary but certainly not sufficient for governments to meet their obligations under CITES. It is easy to talk about quotas and to plan marine protected areas (Level 2) but, in general, catches must actually decline such that fishing mortality becomes sustainable (Level 3). Only then can unsustainable and/or illegal trade in marine fishes be controlled or stopped, allowing species to recover (Level 4). Being certain of such changes in and around the ocean is central to Parties’ obligations for Appendix II listed species.
  • We make recommendations on changes to CITES implementation that would promote better implementation of Appendix II listings for marine fishes and for other taxa. At Level 1, we encourage capacity building for marine species by Parties and by the Secretariat and the CITES Animals (scientific) and Standing (management) Committees.
  • At Level 2, we urge exporting Parties to meet their formal obligations in making NDFs and LAFs, humane transport and monitoring. NDFs are essentially good fisheries management plans and establish a context for adaptive management.
  • Also at Level 2, we also urge importing Parties to meet their CITES requirements, scrutinizing export permits and helping to combat illegal trade. A key CITES compliance process, called the Review of Significant Trade, needs to be enhanced if it is to effect improvements in implementation of listings, and thereby the conservation of listed species.
  • At Level 3, Parties need to evaluate and document what they are doing to make practical changes, so that lessons can be learned. In particular, much needs to be done to address the challenges of capturing Appendix II listed species in non-selective gear and to tackle the threats from illegal wildlife trade (IWT), not least because all too many organizations (NGO and IGO) active in IWT ignore marine species.
  • We conclude that many reports on progress with CITES implementation are actually counting technical outputs (Level 1: meetings, documents, processes) or policy outcomes (Level 2) and that CITES Parties need to focus on generating and documenting field outcomes (Level 3) that will lead to measurable positive impacts for populations of listed species (Level4).
  • Our framework for evaluating implementation is a theory of change that facilitates a layered analysis of CITES effectiveness that cuts through the noie. With so much happening, it would be easy to confuse activity with achievement, and outputs with outcomes, to the detriment of wild populations.
  • CITES implementation for marine fishes is largely about reconciling fisheries and conservation. Effective implementation of Appendix II listings for marine fishes will depend on national fisheries and ocean agencies working in a CITES context to develop and use adaptive management that fully implements CITES for these species.
  • For Parties to implement CITES in meaningful ways, they need to ensure that their field staff are actually reaching fish populations – and the fishers, traders and exporters who handle them – through practical front-line changes. This means that stakeholder, funder, and government attention need to be greatly enhanced at Levels 2, 3, and 4.

Vincent, A.C.J., Foster, S.J., Fowler, S.L., Lieberman, S., and Sadovy de Mitcheson, Y. (2022) Implementing CITES Appendix II listings for marine fishes: a novel framework and a constructive analysis. Fisheries Centre Research Report, 30(3), 189 pp.