Project Seahorse is disappointed by the February 2003 decisions of Indonesia, Japan, Norway and South Korea to withdraw from pending international management protocols for seahorses (family Syngnathidae, genus Hippocampus), established last year by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Member countries of CITES voted on Nov. 13, 2002, in Santiago, Chile, to list all 32 species of seahorses on Appendix II of the Convention, which addresses species whose trade must be controlled in order to ensure the survival of wild populations. Seahorses are among the first marine fish species of commercial importance to be listed on the Convention. Through that listing, the international community implicitly accepted that fishes are wildlife, a significant advance in opportunities for marine conservation. By taking out a “reservation,” the four dissenting nations have opted out of CITES for the purposes of seahorse management, a decision that will dilute cooperative efforts to protect wildlife and their marine habitats.
Project Seahorse understands that each dissenting nation came to its decision independently and that, for some nations, a reservation may be largely symbolic. In fact, CITES regulations can be ignored only when both exporting and importing parties have taken out reservations, although even then, each country may introduce its own management scheme. In the case of seahorses, we face the real possibility of an unregulated trade regime: Indonesia is a major exporter, while Japan and South Korea are believed to be net importers. Norway plays no consequential role.
Of all wildlife trade issues under international conservation management, seahorses will represent the greatest volume when the listing takes effect in 2004: more than 24 million animals are traded each year among at least 77 nations. Traditional medicine accounts for the largest consumption of seahorses, and they are also fished in substantial numbers for the aquarium and curiosity trades. These direct threats, along with incidental catch in non-selective fishing gear and habitat loss and degradation, have led to severe population declines in many regions. All of the 32 known species of seahorses now appear on the 2002 World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered, Vulnerable or Data Deficient.
The CITES treaty obliges all member nations to regulate their trade in species listed on Appendix II. They must issue export permits for international trade and show that trade is not detrimental to wild populations. Project Seahorse recognizes the consequent challenge for seahorse fishers and traders. Indeed, we supported deferral of the implementation for 18 months – the longest delay ever given to a CITES listing – to give governments time to mitigate economic and social disruption. We remain hopeful, however, that the dissenters’ concerns can be addressed before the listing takes effect.