Species of the Sea

CITES COP 13, Bangkok, Thailand, October 2-14, 2004

While charismatic terrestrial wildlife such as elephants or tigers often take center stage at CITES meetings, threatened and endangered marine life play a significant, often controversial and divisive role in the CITES debate.

The most vitriolic discourse usually concerns Japanese (and sometimes Norwegian) attempts to rekindle a legal international trade in whale products, notably meat. For COP 13, Japan has proposed, yet again, the downlisting of certain minke whale stocks (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) from Appendix I to Appendix II to allow the trade in whale meat, despite the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) ongoing moratorium on the commercial harvest of whales. Minke whales have enjoyed much-needed international protection under CITES for a quarter of a century, and a commercial whaling ban under the IWC since 1986.

Despite the prohibition on whaling and trade in whale products, Japan regularly exploits an IWC loophole that allows "scientific-whaling," with whale products from these slaughtered animals ending up for sale on the domestic market. Japan has, in fact, killed hundreds of whales annually under this exemption. Indeed, at this year's IWC meeting, Japan proposed to increase the "scientific" killing to 2,914 Antarctic Minke Whales and 150 North Pacific Minke Whales, and also proposed the introduction of small-scale commercial whaling of minke and Bryde's whales by Japanese coastal communities.

Japan, by downlisting certain "stocks" of minke whales, would create an enforcement nightmare—meat from minke whales remaining on Appendix I (or meat from other whales) is visually indistinguishable from meat of whales that would be downlisted to Appendix II. Appendix I stocks of minke whales would be killed and the meat sold fraudulently under the guise of being from Appendix II stocks.

AWI Quarterly readers, as well as CITES and IWC delegates, will be well-familiar with Japan's vexing, habitual attempts to resume commercial whaling. Similar proposals have been rejected at each CITES meeting since 1997! Japanese Minister Masayuki Komatsu once called minke whales the "cockroaches of the sea" in an effort to exaggerate their abundance. AWI trusts that few will be swayed by Japan's minke whale downlisting proposal at this CITES meeting, and this historically over-exploited species will remain on Appendix I.

Unlike the minke debate, other marine proposals are relatively new to CITES and the international conservation arena. Great White Sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) are globally threatened, slow-growing, long-lived marine predators. At COP 13, Madagascar and Australia have joined together to propose listing the white shark on Appendix II of CITES, but with a zero export quota. This will allow for the heavily-depleted species to recover from recent significant population declines.

They are targeted commercially, primarily for their jaws, fins, and teeth, and are killed by recreational fishermen. The proposal tabled by Madagascar and Australia notes the high value of white shark parts and products in the global marketplace. One jaw of a white shark from South Africa was valued at $50,000, while "small jaw sets may be sold for as much as US$12,500-15,000 and individual teeth for US$425-600."

They are also at risk from conflict with humans who degrade coastal shark habitat in expanding fisheries. Shark diving—ecotourism activities involving the watching of Great White Sharks from within a submerged steel cage—is often unregulated or poorly regulated and can have long-term environmental impacts that harm shark populations.

An Appendix II listing under CITES is a vital first step toward the long-term conservation of this enigmatic species.

Another fish species proposed for listing is the vulnerable humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus). Proposed for listing in CITES Appendix II by the Republic of the Fiji Islands and others, the range of this fish extends within the jurisdiction of nearly 50 countries and overseas territories.

The proposal specifically notes, "International trade appears to be the major threat to this naturally rare species because of high demand, the selective capture of juvenile fish, and its biological characteristics which make it particularly susceptible to exploitation at even the lowest levels of fishing intensity."

This coral reef fish is long-lived (they can live into their thirties), but are heavily exploited in the live reef fish trade and for food in Hong Kong and mainland China. As a luxury food item, the fish can fetch prices as high as $175 per kilogram. The wrasse is also valuable in non-consumptive uses—scuba divers want to see the wrasse in the reef habitat in which it lives.

However, this coral reef habitat is being steadily destroyed by cyanide and other destructive fishing practices (see AWI Quarterly, Summer 2002) and there is no international protection for the humphead wrasse, adding to the imperative of a CITES Appendix II listing.

Lastly, Thailand, the host country, has proposed "uplisting" the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) from Appendix II to Appendix I. The dolphin is found in rivers, estuaries, and shallow waters of Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Bangladesh, and elsewhere. There is no total population estimate for the species, and individual populations are incredibly small and vulnerable.

The Irrawaddy dolphin is threatened by entanglement in gillnets and the effects of explosives used in blast fishing. A burgeoning and worrisome use of these dolphins is their capture for public display and entertainment. According to Thailand's proposal, "The charismatic appearance of Irrawaddy dolphins and behavioral characteristics they exhibit in the wild (e.g. spitting water, spy-hopping, fluke-slapping, etc.) make them especially attractive for shows and display in dolpinariums."

The IWC Scientific Committee supports the proposal, which hopefully will win the wide support of CITES Parties in October.