CITES Shelters Sawfish, Eels, But Enforcement Lacking

THE HAGUE, The Netherlands, June 12, 2007 (ENS) – International trade restrictions have been approved for sawfish – large rays related to sharks, with unique toothed snouts. European eels were also protected by government representatives from 171 countries at a United Nations conference on trade in endangered species.

But a new briefing paper released at the meeting demonstrates that because of lax enforcement in some countries, organized environment crime is now at a level to compare with drugs, human trafficking, gun crime and money laundering.

At the ongoing meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, delegates Monday approved six of the world's seven sawfish species for listing in Appendix I of the Convention, which bans all international commercial trade.

Kenya and the United States had submitted a joint proposal to include all seven sawfish species on Appendix I.

The one sawfish species that did not receive the highest level of protection is a freshwater sawfish found in Australia. In response to Australia's request, this species was included in Appendix II, to allow trade in live animals to public aquaria for display.

Kerry Smith of Australia, proposed listing the freshwater sawfish on Appendix II allowing international trade in live animals to aquaria for primarily conservation purposes. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
The Humane Society International, HSI, which is based in Australia, was dismayed by the exclusion of the freshwater sawfish, Pristis microdon, from the highest level of protection.

"While the successful listing of six species of sawfish in Appendix I represents the first ever listing of any shark species afforded the highest level of protection under CITES," said Michael Kennedy, HSI director, "we are very angry that this freshwater sawfish, a species that is no less critically endangered, was omitted for the sake of a small export industry trading live specimens for primarily commercial reasons.

Kennedy says the exception was made in the private interests of one commercial trader in Queensland, the Cairns Marine Aquarium Fish, the only company currently exporting sawfish for the aquarium trade, and whose director, Lyle Squire, was permitted on the Australian government delegation to CITES.

The family run business is licenced by the Queensland government to collect fish from the Great Barrier Reef for the salt water aquarium trade.

"We are also very disturbed that, as the nation that had been leading global shark conservation efforts, we have now shattered our reputation, when for the very first time, we are faced with a proposal that affected commercial interest in Australia," said Kennedy. "We have shot ourselves in the foot – and embarrassed ourselves internationally – all to protect an export industry worth less that $100,000."

Sawfish are traded for their fins, meat, unique toothed rostra, or snouts, and as live animals for exhibition. (Photo courtesy Florida Museum of Natural History)

The distinctive saw-like snouts of sawfish are sold as souvenirs, curios, and ceremonial weapons, while other body parts such as skin, liver oil and bile are used in traditional medicines.

"We are relieved that international trade pressure will be lifted for these critically endangered species," said Steven Broad, director of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network. "Trade, along with fishing pressure, was pushing them towards extinction."

Although population facts and figures for sawfish are scarce, and there are very few sightings, there is evidence that all species are Critically Endangered.

"The sawfish have disappeared from waters stretching from the east coast of the U.S. to Southeast Asia," said Dr. Susan Lieberman, director of WWF’s Global Species Programme. "This is a positive action today but it is a pity that the CITES Parties are only able to throw a lifeline to shark species when they are on the brink of extinction."

The sawfish were protected, but last week, CITES delegates declined to extend protection to two species of sharks - the porbeagle and the spiny dogfish.

Long-lived European Eel Protected

The future of the European eel looks brighter after the CITES delegates accepted a proposal from the European Union to list this fish species on Appendix II, which allows trade in a species only under strict conditions.

"Today’s decision is good news for the European eel and a major conservation achievement," said Stéphane Ringuet, of TRAFFIC. "The success of the EU proposal will help ensure that use and trade of this species are well managed and legal, which is essential to its survival."

Since the 1970s, the numbers of eels reaching Europe after spawning in the Sargasso Sea is thought to have declined by around 90 percent. (Photo courtesy UK Environment Agency)
According to WWF and TRAFFIC, populations of the European eel have declined throughout most of the species’ distribution area and are now threatened.

Eels are overexploited for their meat which is consumed mostly in Europe and parts of East Asia. Human impacts are reducing and polluting their habitat, such as lakes, rivers and estuaries, the two organizations say.

Large, long-lived fish, European eels spend most of their life in freshwater but adults migrate to the Sargasso Sea, in the Atlantic Ocean, to breed. It then takes about one year for young eels to return to Europe.

"It is vital that European countries but also countries where the eel occurs, such as North African countries, take urgent measures to tackle all the environmental problems leading to the decline of the species," Ringuet said.

Illegal trade involving organized criminal gangs, especially in Southern Europe, is a concern for this species, previous TRAFFIC reports have shown.

Wildlife Crime Rampant

Wildlife crimes, such as trading in rare animals, illegal logging, ivory poaching, and trading in tiger parts, are now so rife they should be treated as serious transnational organized crime, says the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit organization based in London and Washington, DC.

Gangs and syndicates of organized criminals are exploiting weak enforcement and corrupt officials to make billions of dollars, the Environmental Investigation Agency, EIA, said in a briefing paper released last week to CITES delegates.

The EIA report shows that the controls supposedly enshrined in international agreements are being undermined by poor enforcement. Too often countries that sign up fail to provide resources to clamp down on the illegal trade.

EIA uses covert investigation to obtain actionable intelligence. This is passed on to authorities on wildlife and environment crime across three continents. EIA also provides assistance and training on enforcement to customs officers throughout Asia and Africa.


Fife Constabulary Officer Mark Maylin holds an endangered eagle rescued by wildife officers. (Photo courtesy Fife Constabulary)
Environmental and wildlife crime is seen as a high-profit, low-risk criminal activity, the EIA says.

In the world's biggest recent seizure of illegal ivory, Singapore authorities seized over six tons of smuggled ivory in 2002.

The Singapore-based shipping agent received a fine of only £1,650 for trafficking ivory worth millions of pounds and the main suspects are still at large.

Enforcement failure is also clear in the decline of Asian big cats, supposedly protected by trade bans. Illegal leopard and snow leopard skins are still openly available in China and Tibet, EIA investigators found.

Debbie Banks, senior campaigner at the EIA and one of the authors of the briefing paper, said, "CITES Parties must invest in the right kind of enforcement if we are to effectively combat the illegal trade in tigers and other big cats. Making seizures of skins and bones is only part of the process. They have to target the individuals who control the trade."

The EIA recommends more "intelligence-led" investigations to detect criminal networks and specialized national enforcement units to combat wildlife crime.

There needs to be better regional cooperation between national enforcement agencies and border liaison offices established by the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, UNCTOC, the report recommends. UNCTOC has acknowledged wildlife crime as a form of organized crime.

And finally, the EIA recommends the creation of a single, internationally coordinated database of information about the illegal wildlife trade.

The briefing paper, "Upholding the Law: The Challenge of Effective Enforcement," is online. Click here to read it.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.