Following Wednesday’s news that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will list the Banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni) as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), in a prepared statement, strongly urged the agency to not prohibit any trade in the popular aquarium fish. Species under NMFS jurisdiction that are listed as threatened do not automatically have Section 9 prohibitions applied to them. These prohibitions include import, trade and possession, as well as “take” (defined as “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect”). As such, even with the listing of the species, there are currently no federal prohibitions to trading or possessing Banggai cardinalfish.
“We do appreciate that the National Marine Fisheries Service seems to recognize that current practices are proving effective,” PIJAC said in a prepared statement. “We strongly recommend that any rules under Section 4(d) continue to allow responsible aquaculture and trade of the Banggai cardinalfish.”
Section 4(d) of the ESA concerns “protective regulations,” which NMFS can issue if it “deems necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of such species.”
NMFS stated in the Banggai cardinalfish final rule published in Wednesday’s Federal Register that it “will consider potential protective regulations pursuant to section 4(d) for the Banggai cardinalfish in a future rulemaking.” There is no timeline for when the agency might undertake 4(d) rulemaking.
PIJAC Advocates Continued Trade in Wild-Harvest Banggai Cardinalfish
PIJAC does not believe any additional protective regulations are necessary and that the trade in wild-caught Banggai cardinalfish should continue despite the listing. The lobbying group cited improvements to practices in and management of the fishery that it says have not been taken into a account by NMFS. In public comment responding to the proposed rule last winter, PIJAC stated:
Available information indicates that the current conservation status of the species is markedly different due to improved awareness and handling practices in local fishing communities, Indonesian management initiatives, and development of significant aquaculture production. We note that the impact of these positive developments since 2007 seems to have been discounted in the proposed rule.
In its response to Wednesday’s final rule, a PIJAC spokesperson maintained a similar position, saying: “PIJAC believes that significant conservation measures are in place in the native range of the Banggai cardinalfish that greatly reduce the threat to the population.”
NMFS, however, seems to disagree that significant improvements in practices and management have occurred in the species’ native range. In the final rule document, NMFS points to additional information gathered after the proposed rule was published in December 2014. This information indicates that compliance with fishery law and regulations in Indonesia remains largely voluntary as late as March 2015. Further, the improved trade practices and management alluded to during public comment were not readily observable at that time. “Thus,” writes NMFS in the Federal Register today, “we are less certain that compliance and trade practices will improve in the future.”
PIJAC Favored a Species of Concern Designation
While PIJAC did not openly condemn the listing, the lobbying group reiterated that it thought a “species of concern” designation was more appropriate than a “threatened listing.” Last year, in public comment presented in response to the proposed rule, PIJAC wrote:
A careful review of the petition and NMFS’s proposed rule indicates a lack of scientific information supporting listing of BCF under the ESA. Due to the lack of historical species’ abundance data, including abundance trends, PIJAC recommends that NMFS list BCF as a “species of concern” pending receipt of more complete and reliable statistical data regarding the need for listing.
In response to the final rule, a PIJAC spokesperson said: “PIJAC feels that the Banggai cardinalfish could have been considered a species of concern as the data gaps in the scientific record were filled.”
NMFS disagrees that data gaps prevent a listing determination, and the agency addressed the issue head-on in its final rule. In responding to public comment, NMFS stated:
Data exist on the Banggai cardinalfish’s biology, population structure, abundance, trends, habitat use and threats that were reported in the proposed rule and the status review. We agree that standardized surveys across years would be ideal. However, the existing data indicate an overall population decline, and decreases in population density are also evidenced by significant declines in the catch per unit effort. Prior to 2003, collectors from Bone Baru typically required one day to capture approximately 2,000 specimens. In 2007, they reported requiring one week to capture the same number. For Banggai Island, reported mean catch declined from about 1,000 fish/hour in 2000 to 25-330 fish/hour in 2004. Extirpations of populations within the Banggai cardinalfish’s natural range have occurred. In particular, extirpation of local populations has been documented in areas with increased harvest of microhabitat, such as Diadema sea urchins and sea anemones, combined with fishing pressure on Banggai cardinalfish. Further fragmentation of an already small endemic population, which exhibits high genetic population substructuring, increases the extinction risk for the Banggai cardinalfish.
Agreement about Shift to Aquaculture
While PIJAC and NMFS appear to disagree on how effective current fishery management measures may be in Indonesia and whether or not there were sufficient data to make a listing determination, they are both in agreement as to a dramatic shift in where Banggai cardinalfish imported to the US originate. In its proposed rule, NMFS acknowledged this shift, saying that the data show that in 2013, approximately 120,000 cultured Banggai cardinalfish were imported into the US from a single overseas aquaculture facility. “The volume,” stated NMFS, “represents a significant portion of overall United States imports of the cardinalfish and may even exceed the number of wild fish currently imported.”
In public comment last winter, PIJAC said that “Based on the significant contribution of captive-reared fish to the U.S. and Europe, it is likely that demand for wild-caught BCF has declined well below the levels of the early 2000s. We conclude that threats to the species from overutilization by the aquarium trade have been significantly reduced, and largely eliminated.” PIJAC’s position remains unchanged with a spokesperson responding to the final rule, saying the “predominant role of captive bred fish in meeting the U.S. demand…mitigates the risk of overharvest of wild populations and benefits this species.”
NMFS is more reserved in assessing the effect of the increase in aquaculture on the species. While the agency agreed the dramatic increase in aquaculture of the species “may alleviate some of the pressure to collect fish from wild populations,” the final rule states that “the degree to which aquaculture would affect harvest of wild populations is unknown.”
It’s unclear if PIJAC will engage further in the case of the Banggai cardinalfish ESA listing. In the event that NMFS does begin a 4(d) rulemaking process, it would be very surprising if PIJAC did not present public comment opposing any prohibitions on trade or possession. If Section 9 prohibitions are announced for the species, PIJAC would likely take action to attempt to reverse any agency decision, especially if aquacultured fish were to be banned. Regardless of what happens publicly, aquarium hobbyists expect PIJAC will continue to work proactively behind the scenes with NMFS in any cases involving aquarium animals.
NOTE: Make sure to read about WildEarth Guardians’ response to the listing. -ED