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International Waters: CITES Set to Discuss the Dragon Fish

By John Dawes

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) officially listed the dragon fish (Scleropages formosus) as endangered in 1975. International trade in wild-caught specimens is therefore strictly prohibited, although trade is permitted for captive-bred specimens originating from officially-registered farms, as long as they meet a number of strict criteria.

Scleropages formosus - red
The latest dragon fish nomenclature CITES proposals could have far-reaching consequences for this sector. Courtesy of John Dawes.
Several color varieties of the species occur naturally in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. There is also one report of the species occurring in the Philippines, but there is considerable doubt about the validity of this claim.

The differences between these populations include color, as well as several non-shared morphological characteristics relating to certain bones (such as the lower jaw), as well as to the head parameters, distribution and length of the fins and other features. All types of dragon fish have, nevertheless, been traditionally regarded as belonging to the single species Scleropages formosus, irrespective of their morphological and color differences. However, a scientific paper published in December 2003 claimed that the above-mentioned types are not just variable forms of one species but are actually separate species: Scleropages aureus, S. legendrei, S. macrocephalus and S. formosus itself.

Until now, this paper does not appear to have been referenced, neither at CITES Animals Committee meetings nor at any CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP). Since included the three new dragon fish on its online fish reference website for the first time in March 2006, however, informed sources within the industry have expected moves to be initiated at some time to regularize the situation.

On September 30 2009, CITES took a first step in this direction when it issued a Notification to the Parties on Standard Nomenclature. This Notification consists of a list of scientific papers that include references/proposals regarding changes in nomenclature to be discussed at the forthcoming CoP to be held in Doha, Qatar, on March13-25, 2010. Among these papers is the December 2003 Scleropages report.

If the proposed new names are adopted by CITES, there will be significant changes to the dragon fish sector. At the very least, there will be additional paperwork filling for separate permits for each color form (now species)—with accompanying costs. But this would only be the tip of a considerably large “iceberg.”

To take just one of numerous examples: How does one deal with fish that can’t easily be placed in one or another of the new species? If the exact parentage of these variants is known, then they can be placed within one species or another. But this is often not the case, owing to crossbreeding over many generations. Since all these crossbreeds have been regarded as belonging to the single species S. formosus until now, what will happen to these? Will there be moves to stop all crossbreeding?

There are other issues involved, and I hope the above helps place the significance of the Notification into some perspective. At press time, we can’t be certain that the matter will be discussed or that it will be accepted if it is discussed. Our hopes for a sensible outcome rest, as ever, with our representatives who will be attending the CITES CoP and who are preparing thoroughly to present a well-documented, well-reasoned case for commonsense, based on solid science. <HOME>

Laurent Pouyaud, Sudarto and Guy G. Teugels. The different colour varieties of the Asian arowana Scleropages formosus (Osteoglossidae) are distinct species: Morphologic and genetic evidences. Cybium, Revue Internationale d’Ichthyologie, Vol. 27, No. 4, 31 Dec. 2003.

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