Protecting Sharks: the two-edged sword that is CITES

This past week, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) concluded their 16th triennial Conference of the Parties (CoP16) with much fanfare among shark conservationists as 5 species of sharks and 2 species of rays were given recognition of status that could lead to a reduction in the commercial fishing for these animals.  However, before shark advocates break out the champagne, it's important to view the measures taken by CITES as steps in a long process and, in the interim, sharks and rays will continue to be taken.

Many of the steps taken by CITES represent a two-edged sword with good and bad elements on each side.  The 7 elasmobranch species were awarded an Appendix II status at CoP16.  Specifically, Appendix II states the following:

 "Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. It also includes so-called 'look-alike species', i.e. species of which the specimens in trade look like those of species listed for conservation reasons. International trade in specimens of Appendix-II species may be authorized by the granting of an export permit or re-export certificate. No import permit is necessary for these species under CITES (although a permit is needed in some countries that have taken stricter measures than CITES requires). Permits or certificates should only be granted if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild."

The good news is that an Appendix II rating recognizes that a particular plant or animal species may be at risk and therefore trade should be monitored through the issuing of export permits.  CITES does not require import permits from any of its 177 member nations when it comes to dealing in Appendix II species, but nations with commercial fleets involved in the taking of these species will be required to have export permits.

That is definitely a major improvement to the situation for the 7 shark and ray species because, before this determination, these animals were fair game for anyone.  (The species in question: oceanic whitetip shark; great, scalloped, and smooth hammerhead sharks; porbeagle shark; and 2 species of manta ray.)  While shark researchers and conservationists have been noting population declines for some time, either through empirical evidence or anecdotal accounts, CITES, as a major international body, had not formally acknowledged the predicament.  So, this constitutes a very big step forward.

Okay, so break out the bubbly, but don't have that second glass just yet.

Moving forward, CITES will need to be engaged in extensive monitoring of catches to determine whether numbers are being taken at sustainable levels (if you believe in sustainable catch levels of elasmobranchs, something in which I have considerable doubts).  A review of available data will be undertaken to determine baseline levels for each species and then ongoing monitoring of catch levels and estimated populations will be required to determine whether permits should be modified or restricted. 

In describing the decision as it regards the porbeagle shark, a shark that lost out to intense last minute pressure at CoP15 in 2010 but won Appendix II status at this current meeting, a CITES press release noted, "The proponents welcomed the impressive alliance of countries co-sponsoring the proposal and argued that requiring CITES export permits will ensure that international markets are supplied by fish from sustainably managed fisheries that keep accurate records." 

There are many in the ocean conservation community who have expressed concern as to how effectively the monitoring will be carried out, particularly by nations that opposed the new measures.  Of the nations in attendance, just over 90 nations voted in favor of the various shark and ray proposals and around 40 opposed.  So it was not overwhelming and there is concern as to whether opposing nations will drag their feet with the executing of fishery management monitoring of these species. 

In a recent post on Twitter, ocean conservationist Dr. Carl Safina said, "CITES votes to monitor global trade in several shark species.  It's a hard-won win.  But monitor does not mean stop."  Opposing nations, like Japan and China, took the position that national or regional monitoring of catch levels would be sufficient, that international regulations were not necessary.  Many viewed that as the "fox watching the hen house," but it is an argument that can be brought up in the future as these Appendix ratings are not permanent and subject to change at the next CoP meeting in 2016.

Should these sharks and rays be given an Appendix I status, as was the freshwater sawfish at CoP16, which mandates a complete prohibition in trade?  Some shark advocates think so, but for CITES to completely end trade in a particular species, unfortunately, the situation has to be pretty dire and, for sharks, that could mean teetering on the edge of extinction before any action is taken - which could be too late.

An Appendix I rating is often a difficult pill for CITES members to swallow because a complete prohibition goes against the fundamental mission of the organization, which is to sustain the trade in endangered species, not necessarily the species itself.  So, any Appendix I rating is always subject to later review and revision.

Another encouraging step taken at CoP16 was in regards to illegal trade: either violations by member nations or the poachers and illegal traders who ignore CITES regulations altogether.  Illegal shark fishing, elephant or rhinoceros hunting, and many other illegal activities are taking a significant toll.

CITES reported, "The first global meeting of wildlife enforcement networks took place alongside the main meeting to scale up regional enforcement capacity and coordination to respond to the serious threat posed to wildlife by criminal networks. Several events of the International Consortium to Combat Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) brought together Government Ministers, the world's Wildlife Enforcement Networks, the Asian Development Bank, chief justices, attorney generals, senior police and Customs, and enforcement officers to discuss transboundary wildlife crime."

We should all watch closely as to what are the resulting actions of the ICCWC as enforcement hampered by limited manpower, logistical, and financial resources has always been a major issue for many established conservation measures, including wildlife preserves and parks, marine protected areas, and other such sanctuaries.

Overall, this year, CITES and CoP16 proved to be much less of a disappointment to the conservation community than in previous years.  However, its actions of the past week, as positive as they were, represent just one building block of many that need to be put in place to ensure that natural resources - which are showing, more and more, the effects of mankind's voracious consumption - will be here for future generations.

Source: CITES press release

CITES: important meeting for conservation, but what's it all about?

Within the conservation community, a lot of attention has been placed lately on the upcoming March meeting of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).  Specifically, CITES will hold it's sixteenth Conference of the Parties meeting (CoP16) on March 3-14 in Bangkok, Thailand.  The significance of this event is that this is where the member nations, of which there are 177, will meet to review the status of a wide range of animal and plant life to determine whether their status within the organization should be changed.

What catches the most attention from conservationists is the CITES Appendix listings (I, II & III) which determines what regulations or measures the member nations must abide by regarding a particular species.  Here is a breakdown of the three categories as outlined in the CITES website:
"Appendix I lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. They are threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species except when the purpose of the import is not commercial, for instance for scientific research. In these exceptional cases, trade may take place provided it is authorized by the granting of both an import permit and an export permit (or re-export certificate). The Convention does provide for a number of exemptions to this general prohibition.

Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. It also includes so-called 'look-alike species', i.e. species of which the specimens in trade look like those of species listed for conservation reasons. International trade in specimens of Appendix-II species may be authorized by the granting of an export permit or re-export certificate. No import permit is necessary for these species under CITES (although a permit is needed in some countries that have taken stricter measures than CITES requires). Permits or certificates should only be granted if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild. 

Appendix III is a list of species included at the request of a Party that already regulates trade in the species and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation. International trade in specimens of species listed in this Appendix is allowed only on presentation of the appropriate permits or certificates." 

In the proposed agenda for CoP16, there is a long list of species being proposed to either be added to one of the appendices, changed from one appendix to another, or removed altogether, based on a determination of endangerment status.  There is a request from the United States to have the polar bear given Appendix I status and there are other refinements to the existing status of animals such as the white rhino and African elephant.

For shark and ray conservationists, CITES always offers the opportunity to get international cooperation in limiting or prohibiting trade in particular shark species.  For this upcoming meeting, the oceanic whitetip shark , three species of hammerhead shark, the porbeagle shark and the manta ray are all up for consideration in the Appendix II category.  All of these have been the target of commercial fishing for fins - or, in the case of the manta ray, for its gill rakers - and there has been a concerted effort by advocacy groups to make their positions known to CITES members through petition drives and their own planned presence at the March proceedings. 

The challenge faced by conservationists with an organization like CITES is that it represents a wide range of interests.  Its very name makes reference to ongoing, albeit regulated, trade in endangered species and this opens the door for political and economic interests to have a say right along with those of a strictly biodiversity nature.  Case in point: at the last Conference of the Parties in 2010, many shark advocates were disappointed with the results when several shark species, such as the porbeagle, were dismissed for Appendix consideration due to what was described as lobbying and back room negotiations from nations with strong commercial shark fishing interests.

However, CITES exists as one of the more prominent means to garner international support for the protection of plants and animals.  With regards to sharks, while nations may declare safeguards and prohibitions within their own territorial waters, these animals do not know to confine their movements within those safe zones.  Long range migratory patterns put these animals at risk as they enter international waters.  Therefore, the international arena of diplomacy and closed door politics figures into the strategy of conservation groups worldwide, even though it can be a difficult and frustrating strategy to successfully execute.

While international cooperation is noteworthy and necessary, illegal trade activities pose a serious threat to many endangered species.  In fact, it can become a vicious cycle, for as a species becomes more endangered, its value in the illegal or black market increases which serves as an inducement for further exploitation.

At CoP16, there will be a meeting of the ICCWC (International Consortium for Combating Wildlife Crime).  The ICCWC will be discussing new proposals, including the need for a global system of enforcement.  Manpower and funding resources have always been a key issue regarding enforcement, but it is an issue that CITES wishes to address.  

“Illegal trade in wildlife is escalating, is transnational, and is increasingly well-organized. Our collective response needs to be commensurate with the nature of the risk at both the political and operational levels," said John Scanlon, Secretary-General of CITES.

The conservation community will be watching CITES' CoP16 proceedings closely.  You can follow along and learn more at the CITES website or by staying in touch with your favorite conservation organization involved in international activities.


California Diver interviews Richard Theiss

California Diver's Marine Science Editor, Mike Bear, interviewed me in early January and you can read a PDF of the interview here.  We touched on a variety of subjects, from my humble beginnings, working with wildlife, my work with Diana Nyad, and the latest trends in toys (ie: digital video cameras).

As someone who is involved in marine science, Mike was also interested in my thoughts on communicating critically important science information to a broad audience - something that, with my background in media communications, I am always happy to talk about.  All in all, I was pleased.  Hope you are too.


2013: Looking ahead and reaching out

With the start of each new year, many of us re-calibrate our plans, our agendas, our goals.  The resolutions stack up like cordwood and many will get consumed in the fire.  But we look forward, hoping to build on the high points of the past year and sweep the lows into the dustbin of history.  Hopefully, we learn from it all because even in failure or disappointment there are life-affirming lessons.   

2012 was quite a mixed bag for me, as many years can be.  There were some glorious and gratifying highs and crushing lows both professionally and personally.  And as challenging as it can be as we get older, there is room for further enlightenment and change.  Whether it be blind optimism, determination, or naivete, I'm still propelled by the simple motivation that my friend Diana Nyad adheres to: Onward.

For this coming year, I hope to return more to what I do best as a visual storyteller.  There is an audience for what I am able to bring forth, affirmed to me by the support of friends and colleagues and by social media.  But there is also a larger audience that is still in the dark when it comes to conservation and ocean issues.  How do we reach these people?  How do we get them to taste and appreciate the passion and commitment that so many of my colleagues feel, and through that gain an understanding as to the importance of the issues at hand?  That is the challenge for 2013.

Social media is a strange bird.  On the one hand, it is a vehicle through which copious information can be conveyed, shared, and debated - whether through blogs or sites like Facebook and Twitter.  However, there are many times when I find it a bit insular, a club of like-minded individuals keeping morale up and the buzz going.  And that's fine.  We need that to stay motivated. But I keep thinking about that larger audience . . .  

Conservation and ocean issues are a tough sell these days.  With worldwide economic challenges - which have a profound impact on environmental issues, whether we like it or not - the tendency towards focusing on short-term issues and results dominates.  Conservation, while made up of a series of smaller struggles and victories, is a much greater long-term issue and commitment.  It requires forward-thinking, often way beyond our lifetimes, if we are to preserve this spaceship Earth and its finite resources.

That struggle, between looking ahead and dealing with the here and now, confronts us all.  We all must get through our day-to-day lives, pay our bills, put food on the table, and do what we must to get by.  But when we can turn our attention to issues greater than ourselves, we better ourselves as citizens of this planet.  Call it noble or call it simply survival - it is the right thing to do for those generations yet to come.

The health of the oceans, of the environment, is important to me as I see it at the top of the pyramid of challenges facing mankind.  All other causes become immaterial if we lose our life support systems.  So, for 2013, I hope you all are able to continue to fuel your passions and sense of commitment.  Bring it to the largest possible audience and let it be the catalyst that brings enlightenment and forms a new way of thinking about the world we are passing through.

Happiest of New Year's to you all!