Sea Turtle Victory at CITES

Spring 2000 Issue Articles:

* Sea Turtle Victory at CITES
* Launch of Billboard Campaign to Promote Sea Turtle Tag

Next Issue
Previous Issue

Sea Turtle Victory at CITES

By David Godfrey, Executive Director

Cuba’s proposals for permission to ship a stockpiled of six tons of hawksbill shell to Japan were defeated. But the amount of money involved ensures that this issue will come up again at the 2003 CITES conference.

In the last issue of the Velador, CCC reported that it sent three representatives to the 11th Conference of the Parties (COP 11) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which was held this April in Nairobi, Kenya. CCC’s mission was to make sure countries participating at CITES used sound science to evaluate two Cuban proposals to downlist the hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) from CITES Appendix I to Appendix II in order to reopen international trade in hawksbill shell. Specifically, the two proposals (11.40 and 11.41) sought permission for Cuba to ship six tons of stockpiled hawksbill shell to Japan; 11.40 also would have allowed Cuba to make annual shipments of shell from 500 harvested hawksbills annually thereafter.

For two grueling weeks CCC and a small coalition of other NGOs hosted press conferences, gave slide presentations and held private meetings with as many country delegates as possible. In the end, both of the Cuban proposals were defeated. CCC helped convince many countries to base their votes on scientific arguments, and not simply approve Cuba’s request out of sympathy for the country’s depressed economic condition. Defeating these proposals was an important international victory for sea turtles—one that will have ramifications for years to come.

Cuba withdrew its first proposal, which allowed annual shipments to Japan, when it became obvious the measure would fail. The second proposal, which sought to only downlist the species to allow a one-time stockpile sale, was voted on twice. The measure failed by a narrow margin during an initial vote in Committee I, but under CITES rules the proposal could be brought up again for a vote during the final day’s Plenary Session.

Cuba hoped to gain the necessary votes by modifying the proposal to include a CITES-approved inspection of hawksbill trade controls in Japan. Meanwhile, CCC and other groups worked feverishly during the final days of the conference to reinforce delegates’ opinions that international trade in hawksbill products should not be re-opened under any circumstances. Although a few countries did change their positions from supporting to opposing the proposal, the final vote was still very close (67 countries supported the proposal, 41 opposed and 9 abstained). In fact, international trade in hawksbills would now be open if not for the fact that CITES requires two-thirds of the Parties to approve the downlisting of a species.

Although Cuba’s sea turtle management program has improved in recent years, its proposals lacked scientific credibility. They simply ignored the fact that hawksbills are Critically Endangered, as designated by the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group, and that international trade of their shell is the primary reason for the decline of hawksbill populations. In fact, hawksbill numbers continue to decline at many nesting beaches around the Caribbean and the world, including at Tortuguero, Costa Rica. There are a few nesting sites, such as in Mexico, where hawksbill numbers appear to be stable or increasing slightly. But in every case, a halt in population decline came about only after many years of strict protection and a prohibition of commercial harvesting. Cuba claimed that most of the hawksbills being harvested in Cuban waters originated at nesting grounds within Cuba. But research involving DNA analysis, tag returns and satellite telemetry clearly demonstrated that a large proportion of the hawksbills found in Cuba’s waters originate from nesting beaches throughout the Caribbean. These turtles are highly migratory. Thus, they are a shared resource, whose conservation and management must involve a regional approach. [Note: For access to scientific information documenting the current status of hawksbills and the many reasons why downlisting at this time would seriously jeopardize the species’ survival, visit]

The proponents of the Cuban proposals – including their own national delegates, their hired consultants, and a huge, deep-pocketed contingent from Japan – were well prepared for COP 11. Advocates presented slick, convincing propaganda supporting their proposals, and they had organized the support of a number of countries in the Caribbean. However, their arguments focused on a number of irrelevant and/or flawed assertions. They claimed that the six tons of stockpiled shell is the by-product of a controlled, legal harvest of sea turtle meat that is “necessary to feed pregnant women in maternity wards;” and that the U.S. trade embargo has forced Cuba to resort to this food source. They asserted that hawksbills in Cuba’s waters are primarily a resident population, and that the harvest would not affect hawksbill conservation efforts in other countries. They also argued that the U.S. and many U.S.-based groups are opposed to the proposals simply because they do not want Cuba to profit from any international trade. Even little Elián González was dragged into the debate.

Theirs was indeed a well-crafted political campaign, and CCC had to overcome a great deal of emotion to get all the facts across. Fortunately, many CITES delegates put politics and emotion aside and voted according to the science—just as the rules of CITES dictate. This issue is sure to come up again at the next CITES meeting in 2003. The coalition of countries and well-paid consultants who support reopening trade in hawksbill products, despite the Critically Endangered status of the species, will not go away. In fact, profit will motivate them to work even harder next time, with even larger budgets committed to carrying out their campaign.

Likewise, CCC is committed to expanding its mission to include ongoing participation in international debates concerning sea turtle trade. CCC and other NGOs have already begun discussing a collaborative effort to research and document trade issues involving the hawksbill. We too will be prepared for the next CITES meeting. Our expertise is needed to prevent politics and profit from superceding science in all future trade decisions about this species.

A number of conservation groups worked tirelessly and effectively as a team to achieve this victory at CITES. CCC was represented by Executive Director David Godfrey and Scientific Advisory Committee members Dr. Anne Meylan and Dr. Jeanne Mortimer. Other members of the COP 11 “Turtle Team” included: Center for Marine Conservation, WIDECAST, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Greenpeace, Humane Society of the U.S., Wildlife Conservation Society, Japan Wildlife Conservation Society, Defenders of Wildlife, World Wildlife Fund and others. In addition, many countries also spoke out bravely on behalf of hawksbills, including: Bahamas, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Fiji, Hungary, Kenya, Mexico, United Arab Emirates and the United States. Bahamas and Costa Rica were particularly eloquent in their defense of hawksbills, and both joined Mexico in expressing their desire to work more closely with Cuba and other range states in developing a regional management plan for hawksbills in the Caribbean. CCC and others have pledged to help with this process.

CCC’s participation in the CITES conference was made possible by generous grants from the Ahimsa Foundation, The Educational Foundation of America and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, along with contributions from CCC Board member Hilburn Hillestad and a dedicated group of CCC members. Thank you all for helping to achieve this victory!