Integrating Science and Policy: How Scientists Can Help CITES Advance Marine Conservation

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) entered into force in 1975 in response to concerns that many species were becoming endangered through international trade. Because this trade crosses national borders, international collaboration and cooperation are crucial to ensure that this trade is sustainable and controlled and does not threaten or endanger wildlife.

Since the Convention entered into force, more than 30,000 species of animals and plants have been listed on its appendices, from tigers and elephants to mahogany and orchids. In terms of ocean conservation, dozens of commercially valuable marine species—including whales and sea turtles in Appendix I and the queen conch, whale shark, great white shark and humphead wrasse in Appendix II—are also listed in the CITES appendices.

However, recent controversies over efforts to include several shark species, as well as red and pink corals, in Appendix II and the Atlantic bluefin tuna in Appendix I underscore the highly polarized views these issues generate. Some CITES Parties are reluctant to list marine species because fisheries in general are not considered part of wildlife trade.

Sue Lieberman, Pew's director of international policy, shares how CITES works and how it could help ocean conservation efforts.

How does CITES work?

CITES regulates international trade in species—and products made with them—by including species on one of three appendices.

  • Appendix I: Species that are threatened cannot be traded internationally for primarily commercial purposes.
  • Appendix II: Species that could become threatened can be traded internationally for commercial purposes but within strict regulations, requiring determinations of sustainability and legality.
  • Appendix III: Species included at the request of a country that then needs the cooperation of other countries to help prevent illegal exploitation.

What does this mean in practice for a species?

CITES listings have led to many improvements in the management and regulation of international trade in wild species such as elephants, tigers, seahorses, wild orchids and cacti.

Bans on international commercial trade in some species (Appendix I)—such as rhinoceroses and tigers—help ensure that these species continue to survive in the wild by eliminating markets for products such as rhino horn and tiger parts and thus reducing poaching and illegal trade to supply these products. For marine species such as the humphead wrasse and queen conch, inclusion in Appendix II provides much-needed regulation to trade in these highly valuable and heavily traded species.

Listing of other species in Appendix II, such as the American alligator and many parrot species, has helped ensure that the trade is sustainable and legal by requiring exporting countries to certify compliance.

Could more CITES protection help ocean conservation?

The power of CITES rests in its ability to regulate or suspend trade when management is poor; it can impose national trade regulations as well as species-specific suspensions and thereby prevent species from becoming threatened or enable species to recover from overexploitation. CITES could play a larger role in the conservation of many commercially valuable marine species, in light of the deplorable state of global fisheries, particularly on the high seas. Significant declines have been documented in many species subject to both overfishing and high volumes of international trade.

Some scientists, advocates and governments believe CITES has an important role in regulating international trade in those species that qualify, and are not being properly managed by intergovernmental organizations responsible for the management of various fisheries. Many species, such as most sharks, are not managed at all by international organizations, and CITES could provide a critical role in conservation.

Alternatively, some governments believe that only the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and various regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) should have responsibility for managing not only the utilization of these species, but also their international trade.

How could science and scientists support CITES?

Proposals that deal with marine species appear to be on the increase. The 14th meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties (COP14) held in June 2007, considered more proposals for listing marine animals than any COP.

CITES listings should be based on scientific criteria and conservation need, not on political will or domestic interests. Marine scientists can help improve the information about CITES available to government decision makers and help develop and implement effective systems to monitor the effects of trade on a species. Also, with increased focus on the consequences of continued mismanagement of ocean ecosystems, including unregulated trade of many marine species, scientists may be able to use their finding to persuade governments to provided needed protections to threatened species. When a species can sustain trade, science can help promote sustainable take of a species ensuring that the impact and effect of this on wider ecosystems is within safe limits.

What is Pew doing to support CITES with respect to ocean conservation?

The Pew Environment Group worked before and during the last CITES meeting to promote the listings of several shark species in Appendix II and the listing of Atlantic bluefin tuna in Appendix I. Although those proposals were not successful, we continue to work in a number of ways to promote the conservation of these and other vulnerable marine species, including:

  • Work at various RFMOs to promote sustainable, scientifically sound management of bluefin tuna, other tuna species and many shark species.
  • Work at the United Nations and its various agencies—including the FAO's Committee on Fisheries—to ensure that governments adopt policies and decisions that promote science-based sustainable fisheries and protect vulnerable marine ecosystems and sound governmance of ocean ecosystems, both within national jurisdictions and on the high seas.
  • Work with governments to ensure conservation of sharks, tuna and other species at the national level.
  • Work with governments to promote consideration and adoption of proposals for vulnerable marine species (including certain sharks and deep-sea species) at the next CITES COP in 2013.

Learn more about the International Marine Conservation Congress.