OATA CEO Dominic Whitmee and OFI President Shane Willis report on the CITES Technical Workshop on Marine ornamental Fishes held in Brisbane, Australia, in May 2024.

The aim of this workshop was broadly to develop an understanding of the international trade of non-CITES listed marine ornamental fishes and look at ways to identify the species most in need of protection.

The first two days of the four-day workshop were largely about setting the scene with presentations on background information and frameworks that could be used to assess sustainability, including one from the global aquarium industry presented by Dr Matthew Bond of OATA. It was good to see trade so well-represented (this had been a concern pre-workshop) with trade representatives present from Europe, USA, Asia Pacific along with trade associations including OATA (UK), Ornamental Fish International (OFI (global)), Indonesia Ornamental Fish Exporters Association (INOFE), Indonesian Coral, Shell and Ornamental Fish Association (AKKII),  the Sri Lankan Exporters’ Association, the Pet Advocacy Network (PAN (US)), and the Pet Industry Association of Australia (PIAA). There were also academics and anti-trade organisations present, along with government officials, including the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) from the UK.

The third day consisted of break-out groups to discuss issues such as species in trade, how to assess sustainability, best practice management and other points from the terms of reference. Discussions were generally constructive with outcomes and recommendations then fed back to the workshop.  We were concerned about a proposal to submit to CITES Animals Committee a list of 150-200 ‘priority’ species as we had neither seen the proposed list nor was it made clear what they would be a priority for. This was successfully avoided, thankfully.

Final day and conclusions

The final day was a review of observations and recommendations coming out of the workshop – a long and somewhat tedious process to arrive at text that was agreeable to all stakeholders.

Our team of trade representatives did well to ensure the concerns of the industry were taken into account and that a balanced outcome was attained. While the final workshop documents have not been released yet, the main outcomes were:

  1. An agreed list of species in trade made up from all the lists submitted to the workshop which includes more than 2,000 species.
  2. A number of recommendations for standardising nomenclature/scientific names used, data collection and collation to produce better species-based data for analysis.
  3. Examples of Best Practices Management of marine ornamental fish, including the Hawaii and Queensland Fisheries, as well as areas for different research.

Disappointingly, what was not agreed was a more defined process to identify species that may warrant further investigation as to their sustainability and whether conservation measures are needed for them. While there seemed to be consensus that a Productivity Susceptibility Analysis (which looks at a variety of life cycle and other indicators to assess sustainability) was favourable to all, there was no definitive recommendation around how to decide which species warranted further research into their vulnerability to trade. This really was a missed opportunity to develop a sound, scientific and evidence-driven process to identify species in genuine need of some sort of sustainability assessment.

It has always been our position that the sustainability of this trade justifies the same level of detailed consideration by CITES as for other species, consideration supported by good data and science, not supposition or misplaced assumptions about the trade in marine ornamental fishes. This is all the more important given the significant number of people in some of the world’s poorest countries who are reliant on this trade as their primary livelihood and the environmental and social risks of the alternatives.

Overall, we ended up in a better place than expected but there remains substantial work for the Animals Committee otherwise the risk is that the whole workstream falls into a black hole or fails to achieve beneficial and supportable outcomes.

Our view is that a working group should be established to decide on a method to prioritise species’ sustainability, focussed particularly on the development of an appropriately targeted Productivity Susceptibility Analysis, leading eventually to targeted population assessments of the species likely to be vulnerable to trade.

As we have consistently said, we also consider that this whole process would benefit from the engagement of industry and fisheries management experts, including those from UN FAO. We believe that the CITES community should acknowledge the value of drawing together the fullest range of expertise in trying to address this topic in the best way possible, identify the best solutions and ensure the continued engagement of all those affected.

Next step is Animals Committee in July then the next COP in 2025. While the industry performed well at the workshop we do need to be aware that the animal rights activists will increase their lobbying efforts and pursue any measures to hurt the trade. There was already evidence during the workshop of people attempting to create fractures to support their own aims. We need to be very alert to these because they risk undermining the good efforts we have made to date. We should stick to our approach of putting science and evidence before ideology and emotion.

Find out more about the workshop here.