Supporting seahorses through CITES – here we go again…

By Dr. Amanda Vincent
Hippocampus kuda. One of the three seahorse species under CITES Review of Significant Trade. Photo by Luc Eeckhaut/Guylian Seahorses of the World.

Here we go: CITES again. Every year or so, several hundred people sit down at a technical meeting to see whether international trade controls are doing any good for animals. It’s a somewhat crazy process, full of potential and limitations. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, is responsible for ensuring sustainability in exports in 4827 animal species. It works more or less well for different countries and different species. Our challenge at this meeting (called the Animals Committee) is to figure out which countries and which species need the most support – and how to help.

We came to the meeting to support seahorses, of course. We also want to get involved in some broader issues that range from captive breeding to training for Customs officers. But the focus is seahorses, the first marine fish brought under CITES regulation since 1976. We are already working closely with Thailand and Vietnam, which are having trouble ensuring that exports of some seahorses don’t exceed what wild populations can bear. Now it seems that Thailand might need help with another species. And we might have to get involved in West Africa too.

For the first time, I have another seahorse wizard along. Sarah Foster is also on the Project Seahorse team and has spent years working with CITES but this is the first time she has come to a formal meeting. It will be interesting to see what she makes of it all.

At the moment, we are ploughing through the masses and masses of documents, coded with letters and numbers that refer to remote parts of the CITES experience. Most of them are very dull and somewhat obscure. But we really need to understand them well and figure out how they apply to our immediate conservation concerns. Behind every animal name in this mound of paper is a spectacular, quirky or critical species. One that we just might lose forever unless CITES does its work well.