Bought, sold, traded, gone extinct? CITES to the rescue

Tropical timber being transported through Cameroon (2007)Many plants and animals are traded on international markets but you may not often pay attention to the fact that so many of the commodities you come in contact with on a day to day basis are derived from endangered species because often by the time you buy them in a store they have been processed. However: your furniture may be made of mahogany wood, your sushi lunch might have been bluefin tuna, and you may be wearing a necklace of red and pink coral. All of those species are at risk of going extinct, because of trade. For this reason, about 176 countries sign up to an agreement to work together to manage this by evaluating whether or not the level of trade in a species is sustainable, and if it’s not either banning trade or setting up quotas to regulate the trade and thus keep the harvesting of the species in the wild under control. The international treaty is called CITES (Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species).
I just spent the last two days in a meeting with colleagues discussing how to deal with marine species that are listed on CITES and I have to say, this is serious business. Death threats, serious political behind-the-scenes action, lobbying campaigns, and months of strategizing.

There are challenges even once a species is listed on the convention: how do you deal with fish that are caught at sea outside the bounds of national jurisdiction where it is not clear which country should have the responsibility to issue the permit to sell those fish?

What do you do with the countries that don’t comply? How much time do you give them to get their act together to maintain some political capital in your negotiations with them? What if the species is declining so fast that there is no time to give the country a chance?

I even learned that one hypothesized reason that the majority of pink and red coral species (the Corallium genus) are not yet on CITES is because they were the last item on the agenda after a day of particularly frustrating negotiations, and according to experts who know that this creature has been seriously depleted for the jewelry trade, the Parties voted against the proposal and it may just been out of spite, fatigue, inattention, or lack of clear information.