USFWS Errs but Aquarium Trade Still Spooked

InspectorBadge1As I reported earlier, USFWS wildlife inspectors at the Port of Los Angeles began notifying aquarium trade import and wholesale businesses today that it would be illegal to import any of the 20 species of corals recently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This information appeared to contradict earlier statements by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), saying there were no prohibitions on any of the listed coral species at this time. After speaking with sources at both USFWS and NMFS, it appears USFWS was, in fact, in error, but the situation has nonetheless elevated fears amongst aquarium trade advocates about the real ramifications of the listings on trade.

“Can’t Import for Commercial Use”

USFWS Supervisory Wildlife Inspector Mike Osborn at the Port of Los Angeles confirmed in a phone interview at around 10:30 this morning Pacific Standard Time that USFWS was notifying aquarium trade importers in Los Angeles that importing any ESA-listed species of coral was illegal and must cease immediately. Two importers confirmed receiving the notification.

“Once a species has been listed as threatened,” Osborn said in the interview, “you can no longer import them for commercial purposes.” Osborn specifically cited 50CFR 17.8. Section 17.8, titled “Import exemption for threatened, CITES Appendix-II
wildlife,” states:

(a) Except as provided in a special rule in Secs. 17.40 through 17.48 or in paragraph (b) of this section, all provisions of Secs. 17.31 and 17.32 apply to any specimen of a threatened
species of wildlife that is listed in Appendix II of the Convention.
(b) Import. Except as provided in a special rule in Secs. 17.40 through 17.48, any live or dead specimen of a fish and wildlife species listed as threatened under this part may be imported without a threatened species permit under Sec. 17.32 provided all of the following conditions are met:
(1) The specimen was not acquired in foreign commerce or imported in the course of a commercial activity;
(2) The species is listed in Appendix II of the Convention.
(3) The specimen is imported and subsequently used in accordance with the requirements of part 23 of this subchapter, except as provided in paragraph (b)(4) of this section.
(4) Personal and household effects (see Sec. 23.5) must be
accompanied by a CITES document.
(5) At the time of import, the importer must provide to the FWS
documentation that shows the specimen was not acquired in foreign commerce in the course of a commercial activity.
(6) All applicable requirements of part 14 of this subchapter are

“So commercially,” Osborn concluded, pointing out there are no exemptions as provided by Section 17.8, “you can no longer import threatened species–you can’t import these particular corals.”

Different Agencies – Different Rules

Marta Nammack, NMFS’ National ESA Listing Coordinator, disagrees with Osborn.

“50 CFR 17.8 authorizes import for FWS’ threatened species without a permit issued under 17.32,” she says, “But, our threatened species are not subject to 50 CFR 17.32.”

Why? Because 50 CFR 17.32 is a USFWS regulation. NMFS regulations are in 50 CFR 223, 224, and 226.

“Many years ago FWS issued 50 CFR 17.31, which automatically extends all section 9 prohibitions to all threatened species,” Nammack explains, “but we did not issue such a rule.” NMFS must issue a so-called section 4(d) rule in order to extend any of these prohibitions to threatened species under NMFS jurisdiction. “The only protection our threatened species receive without a section 4(d) rule is under section 7,” says Nammack. Under Section 7, federal agencies must ensure that their actions are not likely to jeopardize any listed species.

Recently Listed Coral Species Still Legal to Trade 

Nammack reiterates that the recent listing of the 20 species of coral under the ESA includes no additional prohibitions placed on conduct related to coral or coral reefs at this time. “We did not issue any protective regulations with our coral listings,” Nammack says. “It appears that this FWS enforcement officer is misinformed, thinking that 50 CFR 17.31 applies to threatened species listed under NMFS jurisdiction. However, it doesn’t.  We must issue a section 4(d) rule before any such prohibitions are put in place.”

As of this afternoon, both Inspector Osborn and Nammack said they had spoken and understood each other. Osborn says he is still waiting for confirmation from USFWS Washington office.

While it appears this incident was a case of a straightforward misunderstanding, the news that USFWS was planning to begin confiscating imports of some very popular aquarium corals leaves many in the saltwater aquarium hobby spooked. Trade leaders and advocates have stated in off-the-record discussions that this incident further proves the need for an immediate and concreted response to the ESA listings, which they contend are not supported by the best available science. “For doubting Thomases,” one industry leader told me today, “much of what was predicted by the trade is falling into place now.”

For its part, NMFS has said it is committed to working with all stakeholders to protect these species they believe are in need of protection, while at the same time not unnecessarily harming the trade and aquaculture activities that may have real conservation value. One way NMFS could accomplish this would be by issuing a special rule that extends some prohibitions but allows for continued commercial activity involving aquacultured corals. According to statute, all special rules must be consistent with the conservation of the species, but precedent for this kind of collaborative approach insofar as “take” is concerned does exist.

There will be much more to come on the story, so please stay tuned.

About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
This entry was posted in Endangered Species Act (ESA), Ornamental Fisheries and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to USFWS Errs but Aquarium Trade Still Spooked

  1. We weren’t all that spooked until you posted an article saying it had gone into play! Or perhaps it’s the way the article is written to indicate these corals are banned outright rather than banned from being collected at certain locations. Or perhaps it’s the constant fear we are being fed that Fish and Wildlife will come in and “inspect” our aquariums, which they would be allowed to do without warrant.

  2. Ret Talbot says:

    Thanks for the comment, Frank. What I reported this morning was that USFWS wildlife inspectors were notifying aquarium trade importers that it was illegal to import any of the 20 recently listed species of coral. That’s a fact. It’s also now appears to be a fact that USFWS got it wrong, and I’ve explained why in this follow-up piece (another very interesting/enlightening story in and of itself). If you look at my published record, I think I have actually been the media voice consistently pointing out that these species are NOT banned as a result of being listed. No doubt this is an important topic for aquarists, but I’ve consistently tried to point people to the data and the facts, not the hyperbole or rhetoric. If I’m missing the boat though, please keep me honest! 🙂

  3. Pingback: USFWS Notifies Aquarium Businesses that Importing Listed Corals is Illegal | Good Catch Blog

  4. Pingback: USFWS Warns Aquarium Companies that Importing Coral is Illegal | AquaNerd

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