Throwing Coral a Life Preserver

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is being used more often as a conservation tool to promote a sustainable marine aquarium trade.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is an international agreement between governments of 172 countries. It is designed to safeguard certain species from exploitation and ensure that commercial demand does not threaten the survival of these species in the wild. CITES works by subjecting listed species in international trade to certain controls through a licensing system. Each country designates one or more Management Authorities (M.A.) to administer the licensing system and a Scientific Authority (S.A.) to advise the M.A. on the status of the species and effects of trade. CITES-listed species may be imported, exported or re-exported between countries only if the appropriate document is presented for clearance at the port of entry or exit.

Listed species are regulated through one of three Appendices:

Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction, such as the great whales and sea turtles. Trade is permitted in these species only under exceptional circumstances, such as display in public aquariums.

Appendix II includes species that are vulnerable to exploitation, are known to be traded at high levels and are at risk because of this commercial trade. These species can be harvested and exported but only under sustainable management programs.

Appendix III includes species that are protected in at least one country. These countries request the assistance of other range states of the species in controlling the illegal harvest and trade in the species.

CITES Coral Reef Species
Currently, some 33,000 species of flora and fauna are listed in CITES. Several types of coral reef species are listed on Appendix II, including all giant clams (Tridacna and Hippopus spp.), queen conch (Strombus gigas), seahorses (Hippocampus spp.), humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), all scleractinian corals, blue coral (Heliopora coerulea), organ pipe coral (Tubipora musica) and hydrozoan corals (Millepora and Stylaster spp.).

New CITES Listings
At each meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP), typically held once every three years, countries can submit proposals for amendments to either Appendix I or Appendix II. In the United States, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), in consultation with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), can propose any coral reef species of concern for listing at the CITES COP.

Species under consideration may be identified through independent assessments and also by reviewing petitions received from the public. When the U.S. receives a petition it is first evaluated to determine if it meets the criteria for listing.

First, the species must be in international trade and there must be evidence that harvest and trade are contributing to the decline of that species. The species must also meet specific biological criteria, such as having a small population size, a restricted area of distribution or evidence of recent and historical declines. A detailed proposal is then developed for species that meet these criteria.

The proposal includes biological information and data on population status and trends, an evaluation of the adequacy of existing management and conservation actions, and an analysis of levels and impacts of trade and other compounding threats, such as habitat loss, global climate change and disease. Extensive consultations are undertaken with range states (those where the species in question is also found) prior to submission of each proposal. At the COP, proposals are evaluated and discussed and then submitted to a vote. The proposal can be adopted if two-thirds of the countries vote in favor of the listing.

The Banggai Case
In 2006, the U.S. received a petition to list the Banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni) within either Appendix I or II of CITES. After consideration of the information presented in the petition — and a review of peer-reviewed literature on the status and trends of this species — an Appendix II listing proposal was developed. Information was included on the fish’s unique life history traits, ecology, population status, threats, extent of harvest and trade for marine aquaria and existing management and conservation activities.

The Banggai cardinalfish met the criteria for listing based on several factors. It is an endemic species that has a very limited geographic range, and it is restricted to shallow, nearshore habitats. The species has been introduced in a number of locations outside of its normal geographic range, but this is unlikely to occur without human intervention, as the species lacks a pelagic dispersal phase, and subpopulations that are wiped out by fishermen are unlikely to recover because juveniles settle close to their parents.

These cardinalfish are also vulnerable to fishing pressure because they produce few offspring, and they only live for a few years. They are also relatively sedentary and attached to specific sites. Also, because they occur only in shallow-water nearshore habitats, they are easy targets for fishermen.

Population Threats
The Banggai cardinalfish is characterized by a very small overall population size, which is estimated at about 2½ million animals and numerous genetically distinct subpopulations. While data is lacking on the abundance of the species prior to establishment of an aquarium fishery, the species appears to have exhibited significant declines.

The mean density of the species is about 900 percent lower in fished areas as compared to unfished sites, and in areas that have been examined over time, there have been notable declines in abundance and several localized extirpations.

This species was introduced into the aquarium trade in 1992 and harvest rapidly increased to 700,000 to 1 million fish per year, which is thought to represent 30 percent or more of the population. All of the biological and trade data supported an Appendix II listing, but the listing was not supported at the COP because Indonesia felt existing or proposed conservation measures were adequate to protect the species.

In this example it is important to continue to evaluate population trends, levels of trade and success of local conservation and management, with reconsideration of the listing an option if populations should continue to decline.

CITES Benefits for Coral Reefs
All CITES-listed coral reef species are still in legal international trade, but exporting countries are required to regulate trade through a system of permits. These permits are supposed to be based on a finding that the species was legally acquired and that the proposed level of trade is sustainable.

To continue trading in a listed species, the S.A. is supposed to obtain information on the status of the species in the wild, the origin of the species in trade and the impacts of the proposed level of trade. The S.A. should implement a sustainable management plan that identifies a proposed level of trade that minimizes risks to the species and its ecosystem. If there is no management plan in place, the S.A. should issue a sustainable quota for the species taking into account information on the abundance of the species, its biology and known impacts of harvest.

Once a species has been listed in CITES for five years, that species may undergo a significant trade review (STR). This review is designed to ensure that existing trade is sustainable, and it includes an evaluation of the abundance and population trends of the species, levels of trade and whether existing management plans are adequate to protect the species.

The review includes the identification of range countries that have adequate protection in place (countries of least concern) and countries of urgent and possible concern. If a species is being exported at unusually high levels and there is no evidence of a management plan or any monitoring program to assess the status of the species, the CITES secretariat can develop a list of actions a range country must take to continue trading in that species. If the range country does not address the concerns raised in the STR, their exports can be suspended.

CITES establishes an international legal framework to regulate trade in wildlife. The listing requires annual reporting from exporting and importing countries on the amount of trade in each species. This data is often the only information that exists on levels of trade and forms the basis of determining whether harvest is sustainable.

In many cases the exporting countries are developing countries with limited resources and a lack of adequate monitoring programs. Through a species listing, CITES promotes partnerships with importing countries that are able to provide technical and financial assistance to help manage their wildlife trade.

Finally, in many cases there is no information in range countries about the distribution or abundance of species they are exporting until they become listed. This is true because range countries must make a nondetrimental finding, which is a finding by Scientific Authorities that trade in a given species is not detrimental to the species’ survival. Subsequently, the listing helps promote the implementation of monitoring programs.

Using CITES to Protect Indonesia’s Coral Reefs
One example of how CITES has helped promote sustainable trade in corals involves the trade in live aquarium corals from Indonesia.

Indonesia is the world’s largest source of live corals for the aquarium trade, with about 1 million live corals entering the trade each year. In 1999 the European Union suspended imports of nine genera of corals from Indonesia because they felt these were rare species that were in trade at unusually high numbers.

This prohibition led to a partnership between the United States, the European Union and Indonesia to develop sustainable guidelines for the export of stony corals and to implement a field-based monitoring program. The largest collection area in Indonesia, off Sulawesi, was examined by coral reef scientists with participation by local scientists, coral collectors, the Indonesian government, local nongovernmental organizations and the Indonesian coral trade association AKKII.

The approach included an assessment of the fishery and the status of the resource in different habitats. By incorporating information on the life history of the corals, recommendations on modifications to their export quota were made. This project ultimately increased the capacity of Indonesia to monitor their resources in other coral-collection areas, thereby ensuring that their levels of coral exports remain sustainable.

The Hobbyist Connection
Hobbyists can play a critical role in promoting sustainable trade in marine aquarium species. For CITES-listed corals, recognition of the source of corals, their status and ease of care in captivity are key elements hobbyists should consider before purchasing any coral.

One of the best ways to reduce pressure on coral reefs is to purchase farm-raised corals and to join aquarium clubs where opportunities exist to trade coral fragments.

Collecting and sharing information on survival of corals, as well as disease issues and other biological observations can help raise awareness of these issues and drive consumer demand toward more environmentally friendly choices.

Species of concern that are not listed in CITES, including species that exhibit low survival rates and uncommon reef fish and invertebrates, should not be purchased unless there is evidence that these are being harvested from reefs with management programs. Hobbyists can also play a role in supporting future CITES listings by providing information to the U.S. government on these species.

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