The 69th meeting of the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), held November 27 to December 1, 2017, in Geneva, Switzerland, featured more than 600 registered participants—a record. The scope of the meeting was also larger than ever, with several contentious issues under discussion. Carolina Caceres, from Canada, served as chair (the first woman to do so).
While the committee made decisions on some issues, most of the substantive work was relegated to 27 working groups established during the meeting. The working groups cover a diversity of animals, from European eels to African lions (a species subject to increasing threat from trophy hunting, habitat loss, disease, and legal and illegal trade in bones and other body parts). They also address a number of broader issues, including trade in live animals, wildlife cybercrime, handling of stockpiles of CITES-listed species, and trade in captive-bred and ranched animals.
The working groups are often tasked with developing proposals on treaty compliance and species-specific issues, which are then considered at the next CITES Conference of the Parties—May 2019, in this case. AWI is participating in working groups on the African lion, disposal of confiscated specimens, livelihoods and food security, and rules of procedure. As a member organization of the Species Survival Network, AWI will also provide input into the deliberations of other groups.
For elephants, the Standing Committee asked Qatar to develop and submit a national action plan to document its efforts to combat illegal trade in elephant ivory. It also sought revised ivory action plans from Vietnam, Malaysia, and Togo and warned Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Tanzania that failure to submit progress reports on the implementation of their ivory plans could result in trade suspensions.
The committee directed the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa) to not issue any export permits for commercial or noncommercial trade in grey parrots until it can prove that its grey parrot trade complies with the convention. It identified Botswana, the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville), Guinea, India, Kazakhstan, Laos, Mongolia, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan as needing to urgently address deficiencies in their national laws implementing CITES, with Mongolia and Tunisia warned of potential trade suspensions if they fail to act. Laos—a hub for illegal wildlife trade—was given a list of tasks to address its compliance issues, including developing wildlife farming legislation, implementing new laws to combat illegal wildlife trade, and completing an inventory of its captive tiger farms.
A significant victory was obtained for the pangolin, the world’s most trafficked mammal (mainly for its scales, used in traditional Asian medicines). All pangolin species were uplisted to Appendix I in 2016, meaning that international trade for “primarily commercial” purposes in the animals and their body parts is prohibited. The committee voted 11-3 to support applying the trade ban to all dead pangolin specimens—including those collected or confiscated before pangolins were added to Appendix I. The CITES secretariat, in a controversial recommendation that would have upended decades of CITES precedent, suggested that pangolin specimens collected before pangolins were uplisted be considered “pre-convention.” Had the secretariat’s interpretation been accepted by the committee, it would have established a dangerous precedent, allowing unlimited trade in such stockpiled specimens, and further jeopardizing the survival of pangolins and other protected species.
Vaquita Gets Short Shrift at Meeting
The vaquita porpoise sits perilously close to extinction due to drownings in gillnets, including those illegally set for the totoaba, a large fish that shares the vaquita’s Upper Gulf of California habitat. (Totoaba swim bladders are prized in parts of Asia for their supposed cosmetic and medicinal value.) Both the vaquita and totoaba are critically endangered and listed on CITES Appendix I. Thus, CITES parties face a unique challenge in which the illegal trade in one Appendix I species is leading to the extinction of another.
With fewer than 30 vaquita likely remaining on the planet, there is no time to waste in ending illegal fishing, clearing their habitat of illegal nets, and ending the demand for totoaba swim bladders. This was the message that AWI and allies communicated at the Standing Committee meeting.
Despite the dire status of the vaquita, the meeting documents prepared by Mexico and the CITES secretariat failed to acknowledge the significant inadequacies of efforts by Mexico, the United States, and China (respectively, the main source, transit, and consumer countries involved) to end the trade and save the species from extinction.
While a few nations, including New Zealand and Portugal, noted the urgency of the situation, the debate was shockingly abbreviated, especially given the role that illegal international trade is playing in the vaquita’s demise. Even more disappointing was the parties’ initial complete silence in response to a recommendation, made by the Environmental Investigation Agency on behalf of AWI and a number of other nongovernmental organizations, for a high level diplomatic mission to Mexico to identify concrete actions to stop illegal totoaba fishing and trade.
Fortunately, at the very end of the meeting, Mexico expressed support for the mission and the CITES secretariat accepted an invitation to participate. The mission cannot occur soon enough; it must throw a final lifeline to the vaquita by developing and aggressively implementing specific, rigorous, time-bound actions to stop the illegal fishing for and trade in totoaba. Only then does the vaquita have any chance of surviving.
AWI and partners have provided input to mission participants from Mexico, China, the United States, and the CITES secretariat. In addition, we continue to pursue other efforts, including litigation and the ongoing boycott of Mexican shrimp, to save the vaquita. Mexico’s environment minister has acknowledged that the two principle causes of vaquita deaths are shrimp fishing and the illegal totoaba fishery. Therefore, we are calling on both retailers and consumers to boycott shrimp from Mexico until that country takes decisive and effective action to ensure that vaquita are no longer threatened by gillnets in the Gulf of California. (For more on how you can aid this effort, visit www.BoycottMexicanShrimp.com.)
Strong Action Sought in Response to Japan’s Sei Whale Hunt
Trade in sei whale products was the subject of considerable debate and controversy at the meeting. AWI and partners provided delegates with extensive evidence and legal arguments documenting Japan’s illegal import of sei whale products for commercial sale and pressed members of the Standing Committee to impose sanctions on Japan for violating the convention.
As noted earlier in this article, CITES prohibits international trade for “primarily commercial” purposes in species listed on Appendix I. Under CITES rules, international trade includes the landing of specimens caught on the high seas (referred to as “introduction from the sea”). Japan holds reservations exempting it from CITES restrictions for most whale populations—but not for the Appendix I listing of the North Pacific sei whale population. Consequently, Japan cannot legally bring the body parts of these whales ashore for commercial sale.
Japan has hunted sei whales since 2002 in its so-called scientific whaling program in the North Pacific, now known as NEWREP-NP. The country conducts limited and scientifically questionable research on some of the whales’ organs and tissues, but the vast majority of what it brings to land is meat and blubber that has already been frozen or vacuum-sealed in sales-ready packages aboard its massive factory ship. The intended purpose of landing these edible products—about 12 metric tons per whale—is indisputably commercial sale. All told, Japan lands more than 1,600 metric tons of sei whale products annually.
In early 2016, the European Union asked the CITES secretariat to investigate the legality of these introductions from the sea. For more than a year, the secretariat asked Japan for documentation on how it ensures that sei whale specimens are not used for primarily commercial purposes, in violation of CITES. Japan’s responses were reviewed during this Standing Committee meeting, where many parties denounced Japan’s deficient and evasive replies and expressed concern that its practices appear to violate the convention.
AWI and allies provided Standing Committee members and other parties with extensive evidence of Japan’s commercial use of sei whale meat, including Japanese government reports describing governmental management of the production, distribution, and marketing systems that support and promote the trade. We also provided a detailed legal analysis demonstrating that Japan’s actions clearly violate the requirements of the convention.
Our aim of securing sanctions against Japan at this meeting fell short, but the Standing Committee directed the CITES secretariat to conduct a technical mission to Japan to seek answers to its questions about the commercial trade in sei whale products. It will report its findings at the next Standing Committee meeting, in October 2018, when parties could potentially impose trade sanctions on Japan if they determine that it is not complying with the treaty. AWI’s efforts will continue over the coming months in the hope that decisive action will be taken under CITES against Japan’s commercial use of sei whales.