All Photographs taken in the Banggai Islands by Ret Talbot
The Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association (OATA), a UK entity created to “promote and protect the ornamental aquatic industry” announced its opposition to a CITES listing of the popular marine aquarium fish known as the Banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni). The meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to CITES, during which the proposal to list the Banggai cardinalfish will be discussed, begins tomorrow in Johannesburg, South Africa. This EU-sponsored attempt to list the Banggai cardinalfish under CITES follows a 2007 failed attempt proposed by the US. Indonesia opposed the 2007 proposal, and they also oppose the current one. The Banggai cardinalfish is endemic to Indonesia.
CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments that seeks to insure international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival in the wild. The EU proposal to list the Banggai cardinalfish under CITES Appendix II would mean that trade in the species would be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival. While the US has listed the Banggai cardinalfish under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), there are currently no restrictions on trade despite largely ineffective grassroots efforts to better manage the fishery in Indonesia, as well as largely ignored Indonesian fishery regulations. Appendix I listings are reserved for animals threatened with extinction and for which trade in that species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances.
A Troubled Past for the Banggai Cardinalfish
Since its re-discovery by the aquarium trade in the mid-1990s, the Banggai cardinalfish rapidly became one of the most popular saltwater aquarium fishes. The species consistently ranks amongst the top 10 most imported marine aquarium fish species to the United States, which is believed to be the largest market country for the trade. The data show the negative effects on wild populations as a direct result of the aquarium trade are significant, leading the US to list the species as “threatened” under the ESA earlier this year. While the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) acknowledged the threat to the species from the US aquarium trade has dropped dramatically, owing to a large aquaculture operation meeting that began meeting a majority of US demand for the species in 2013, the Service remains concerned about the synergistic effects of all threat factors. At this time, the NMFS has not imposed any restrictions on the import, sale or possession of the species in the US, but this may change.
Some critics of the ESA listing have expressed concern about the fact that the listing will do little if anything to curtail international trade. Given the many examples of illegal wildlife trafficking in China, and considering that China is becoming a larger consumer of reef fishes for aquaria, others share concerns that unsustainable fishing for the species will continue and perhaps even increase despite the fact US imports continue to drop. Proponents of a CITES listing say the action could begin to address some of these concerns by controlling international trade through a quota-based system.
OATA’s Opposition to a CITES Listing
OATA’s opposition to the listing is based, in part, on concerns of how a CITES listing would affect the aquarium trade in the UK. “If this proposal is successful,” states OATA in a press release, “it will undoubtedly affect our industry through higher import charges and could prevent the import of wild caught Banggai cardinal into the EU.” In addition, OATA claims the proposal to list the Banggai cardinalfish on Appendix II “does not show any likely benefits of a listing.” Although the proposal points to an overall 90 percent decline in abundance of the species in its endemic range from an estimated pre-harvest level, OATA maintains “it is unclear what the main factors for the decline are.”
In its thorough status review of the Banggai cardinalfish, NMFS acknowledges myriad threats to the species, as well as a decline in demand from US markets, but the Service concludes the synergistic effect of all threat factors, including an indisputable decade of dramatic over-utilization for the aquarium trade and ongoing habitat destruction in the species’ extremely limited native range, places the Banggai cardinalfish at a moderate risk of extinction and justifies a listing.
For its part, the CITES Secretariat states:
[T]he supporting statement shows that the species has continued to decline in the past nine years, and questions the effectiveness of the attempts to manage the species nationally. The species remains in demand for the ornamental fish trade, noting that that demand is partially met by captive-bred specimens. Its very restricted range, very low dispersal ability and the ease of depleting a local population with relatively little effort are important vulnerability factors that increase the risk that the species might become eligible for inclusion in Appendix I within a short period of time.
OATA has consistently defended the aquarium trade’s reliance on wild-harvest fishes by claiming that the trade in wild fishes creates economic incentive to conserve. The UK-based trade association has now applied this same argument in their opposition to a CITES listing for the Banggai cardinalfish. “There are other threats to the species such as habitat destruction which most likely are more significant than the trade,” OATA states, “and that can be expected to increase if the trade incentive for protecting the species is lost.” While there are isolated situations where a sustainable aquarium fishery has been shown to be a benefit to conservation, the data show such a scenario is far from the norm in the marine aquarium trade, where the vast majority of fishes originate from two countries about which there is the most concern when it comes to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fisheries.
In the Banggai Islands, the Banggai cardinalfish is considered a low value fish that is frequently harvested and sold as a secondary source of income for a very limited number of fishers. In some cases, the same fishers harvesting Banggai cardinalfish are also engaged in other activities that are further contributing to the destruction of the species’ habitat. To suggest that regulating the number of fishes traded through a CITES listing would lead to greater habitat degradation and less protection for the species is wholly unsupported.
Finally, OATA opposes a CITES listing of the Banggai cardinalfish because Indonesia does not support the proposal. “Indonesia considers that such a listing will do nothing to support their national management of the species,” says OATA. “We feel it is inappropriate that the European Union should take this approach without the support of the country of origin, particularly when it could unnecessarily affect fishing communities who may not have many other livelihood options.”
Researchers who have studied the fishery have shown time and again that despite numerous efforts to better regulate the fishery, those efforts have largely been ineffective. Informal agreements and national fisheries law have continually been subverted, and both illegal and unsustainable harvest remain a significant concern. Further, there is no evidence to suggest that a large group of fishers make their living exclusively from collecting Banggai cardinalfish. In fact, the opposite has been reported. While it is essential to keep in mind and support local fishers and fishing communities when considering any regulations, the fishery must show signs of moving along a path toward greater sustainably. Despite hard work and admirable grassroots efforts, this has repeatedly been shown not to be the case in the Banggai Islands.
While OATA’s opposition to a CITES listing of the Banggai cardinalfish is discouraging, it is hardly surprising. The marine aquarium trade has demonstrated a near pathological unwillingness to address the most pressing issues it faces. While the continued use of cyanide to harvest fishes and the largely uncontrolled importation of non-native species that pose a significant risk to native ecosystems are certainly issues that need immediate attention, even more pressing is addressing trade associations’ consistent opposition to any common sense measures that would demonstrate to the general public, conservation biologists, regulators and others that the trade is willing to reform and put itself on a path to greater sustainability. Only then will the trade have the opportunity to truly realize a vision of being a force for good when it comes to reefs, the species that inhabit them and the adjacent coastal communities.