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Dragons, Corals and Rays: Decisions at the CITES CoP 15

By John Dawes

The 15th CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP15) recently ended in Doha, Qatar. In a previous installment of this column (see “International Waters: CITES Set to Discuss the Dragon Fish,") I referred to two topics of direct interest to the aquatics industry that were lined up for discussion: dragon fish (Scleropages formosus) and hard corals.

After Cop15, all dragon fish will continue to be traded as Scleropages formosus. Courtesy of John Dawes
In fact, there was also a third group of animals discussed at the conference that did not receive widespread publicity, probably because the group was “submerged” within a wider-ranging document dedicated to sharks: South American freshwater stingrays.

As ever, representatives from a number of aquatic industry organizations were present and, while they were able to participate as official observers in certain discussions, they were unable to vote. Despite this obvious limitation dictated by the CITES operating rules, key decisions regarding both the dragon fish and hard corals went the way those in the industry feel they should have gone.

Regarding the dragon fish, had the proposal to recognize four separate species been adopted, rather than the single species accepted by CITES, the change would have resulted in enormous complications. And, not just for individual exporters and importers, but for exporting and importing countries as well—to say nothing of the governmental CITES-administrating agencies in all countries through which the species is exported and imported.

All the trade organizations present opposed the proposal, as did the countries where the CITES–Appendix I-listed dragon fish is captive-bred. They did so not just on administrative grounds, but also out of doubts regarding the actual validity of the proposed four-way species identification split.

Hard coral names will hopefully be updated and standardized before the next CoP. Courtesy of John Dawes
Following the discussions, the chair of the CITES Animals Committee and the CITES Secretariat itself tabled a Draft Resolution (CoP15 Con.I.1) that incorporated the wording, “The proposal to keep the current reference for Scleropages formosus.”

Consequently, the reference to the scientific paper proposing the split is no longer in the final document. Therefore, to the relief of all in the industry, we will stick with just one species for all types of dragon fish: S. formosus.

Turning to hard corals, the United States tabled a proposal based on the difficulties currently experienced with coral identification. Clearly, if the coral trade is being monitored and controlled, it is important to be able to identify coral species at points of entry and export. However, with species names changing in the light of new knowledge, anomalies have arisen, such as the names of genera and species listed on CITES permits not being present on the official list contained within the relevant CITES Notification issued back in 2003. In addition, the CITES Species Database now includes whole genera that do not appear on the Notification list. As a result, the relevant CITES Notification is badly outdated.

In the face of such a situation, the U.S. proposed that the Animals Committee tackle the issue, starting with the identification of existing coral references that could be used as standard nomenclatural references for CITES-listed corals, among them all those traded for home aquaria. In addition, the relevant CITES Notification should be updated to take in all the recent revisions in coral nomenclature.

These moves should (and very probably will) make the whole trade in hard corals less confusing and more feasible than it currently is. At least, we all hope so.

Turning to wild-caught South American freshwater stingrays, several species have, for a time, been available on a limited basis, with world demand for these fascinating fish rising in recent years. It is not absolutely clear, though, whether demand for these fish is rising due to the increase in the number of stingray breeding farms that have been springing up in the Far East, or whether the farms have sprung up because of the demand.

The debate regarding South American freshwater stingrays, such as these wild-caught Potamotrygon motoro is being re-opened. Courtesy of John Dawes
This and other issues were discussed at a workshop held in Geneva on April 15 to 17, 2009. Representatives of the range states, the ornamental aquatic industry and the IUCN Species Survival Commission attended the workshop. The value and potential shortcomings of listing South American freshwater stingrays in CITES Appendix III was discussed, as was the risk posed to the South American ornamental freshwater fish industry by captive breeding establishments outside the region and the potential for addressing these risks through restrictions on exports of adult stingrays for breeding purposes.

As a result of the latest CoP, the status of South American freshwater stingrays are now being debated, with the above points scheduled for study. They will be discussed at CITES Animals Committee meetings and elsewhere in due course, and we can expect further proposals at CoP16 in two years’ time. In the meantime, trade in wild-caught specimens will, presumably, continue in its present format (which varies from country to country), the same applying to exports and imports of Asian farm-bred specimens.

CITES Cop15 didn’t go badly with regard to topics directly related to the ornamental aquatic industry. Just how positive the latest coral and stingray resolutions will prove to be in the long run remains to be seen. The dragon fish decision, though, was a very significant and positive one. <HOME>


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