For nearly two weeks now Sea Shepherd Legal (SSL) has been in South Africa advocating on behalf of marine species at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES). Despite its long name, this treaty has a simple driving purpose: to prevent international trade in wildlife (and plants) that is detrimental to the survival of the species. While SSL does not condone treating wildlife as a “resource” to be traded “sustainably,” we recognize that CITES, with 183 signatory nations, represents one of the only safeguards against the unfettered exploitation of wild animals on a global scale.
For decades, CITES has played an important role in protecting terrestrial species but has been woefully inadequate in extending the same protections to marine species. The precious oceans and their inhabitants are being devastated by increasing levels of legal and illegal fishing driven by our insatiable demand for seafood. Yet, despite these dire circumstances, only a handful of marine species have been placed on CITES’ lists – an Appendix I listing banning commercial trade, or an Appendix II listing restricting trade “detrimental” to the survival of the species.
Now to the good news. By greater than the two-thirds majority required, the CITES parties voted to include thresher and silky sharks as well as devil rays in Appendix II. SSL worked hard to prepare for this conference and to lobby nations that were “on the fence” to vote in favor of marine conservation. Toward this end, we invited party delegates to our side event, in which we highlighted the fact that CITES has long neglected marine species, presented counterarguments to Japan’s long-repeated and unsupported arguments against listing any marine species under CITES, and showcased the role that Sea Shepherd plays in marine species protection. As part of our event, we also assembled a panel of experts and party proponents of the listings to deliver the message that greater species protections were critical and achievable.
In preparing to leave South Africa for our next project, we cannot help but to reflect on the overall experience. CITES has a reputation for shady backroom deals and shameful attempts to “buy” votes from party delegates. While it it true that we witnessed such nefarious conduct, we also grew to appreciate the sincere efforts by many parties – and particularly some of the developing (or less developed) nations – to advocate on behalf of wildlife conservation against determined opposition. For the marine species at issue in this conference, the results of these labors – Appendix II listings – offer renewed hope for their continued survival and potential recovery in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.