International Waters: Australian Clarion Angelfish Clarification

Clarion angelfish are members of the family Pomacanthidae, the marine angelfish.

Australia, as we all know, has extremely strict import regulations for ornamental fish, aquatic invertebrates and aquatic plants. This has created a unique situation for Australian importers and hobbyists alike, who are not able to access many of the species and varieties available elsewhere. Nonetheless, they still have access to a substantial number of permitted species that can be imported and distributed, as long as they meet the necessary criteria.

The full list of permitted species is available online and can be easily accessed by searching for: "list of specimens taken to be suitable for live import." The list is subdivided into two parts: "Part 1—Live specimens not requiring an import permit," although all the other usual documentation, such as health certificates, etc., apply, and "Part 2—Live specimens requiring an import permit," such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) export and import documents.

Part 2, which is the one I’m concentrating on here, lists the species under their scientific and common names, and then adds a third column, "Conditions for Import." There are nearly 40 species listed. However, in practice, many more than this are covered by the list as it includes the seahorses, which are listed under their generic name, Hippocampus spp. This genus currently consists of 55 species, so, in total, the Part 2 list of species requiring import permits consists of around 95 species.

Absent from this list are well-known fish, such as carp and koi (Cyprinus carpio) and the dragonfish (Scleropages formosus), but this doesn’t mean that they can be imported into Australia. Far from it. For them to be allowed in, they would need to be included in Part 1, but they aren’t, so, in cases such as these, the species in question are totally prohibited.

I mention this because omissions and inclusions are often the source of confusion. And so it’s turned out to be with the latest announcement concerning an iconic—though hugely expensive—species, the Clarion angelfish (Holacanthus clarionensis).

Up to recently, Part 1 permitted the import of all members of the family Pomacanthidae, the marine angelfish. This family consists of just over 91 species, among which we find the Clarion angelfish. On Feb. 12, 2018, Josh Frydenberg, minister for the environment and energy, announced several amendments to the existing list of specimens suitable for live import established under Section 303EB of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which has been in force—with several updates—since 1999.

Under the latest amendment, all the species of the family Pomacanthidae can continue to be imported following "normal" Part 1 procedures. However, the Clarion angelfish has now been moved to Part 2, which consists of "species of animals and plants suitable for live import with an import permit issued under this act."

Perhaps a little surprisingly, this simple amendment has caused quite a bit of confusion, with many people believing that all pomacanthids (angelfish) will now require CITES permits before they can be exported to, or imported into, Australia. This is not the case. All pomacanthids can continue to be exported to Australia under the normal export/import Part 1 conditions that have applied to date—except the Clarion angelfish, which will now require CITES clearance. This means that exports to, and imports into, Australia can continue for this species, but on a more controlled basis. Aware of the rising concern within the industry relating to the Clarion angel, the Australian Competent Authority has now issued a clarification statement, which I am backing up by means of this article.

It should be stressed that, as special documentation is now required, even for the relatively modest quantities of captive-bred specimens that are available, the unit price for this already-expensive species is likely to increase. Interested parties should therefore be aware that the price of individual captive-bred specimens could end up exceeding $7,500.

CITES: An Overview

CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. 

At the core are three Appendices: 

  • Appendix I lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. They are threatened with extinction and international trade in specimens of these species is prohibited, except when the purpose of the import is not commercial, e.g. for scientific research. The Convention, however, provides for a number of trade exemptions to this general prohibition. 
  • Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. It also includes so-called "look-alike species", i.e. species whose specimens in trade look like those of species listed for conservation reasons. International trade in specimens of Appendix-II species may be authorized by the granting of relevant permits. 
  • Appendix III is a list of species included at the request of a party (CITES member country) that already regulates trade in the species and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation. International trade in specimens of species listed in this appendix is allowed on presentation of the appropriate permits or certificates.

John Dawes is an international ornamental aquatic industry consultant. He has written and/or edited more than 50 books and has contributed more than 4,000 articles to hobby, trade and academic publications. He is the editor of the OFI Journal and a consultant to AquaRealm, the trade show that took place June 2017 in Singapore.