The proposal to list Bangaii cardinals into CITES II

Postby GrowDammit » Tue Sep 18, 2007 10:10 pm

I hope you don't mind . . . I sent out a bulk mailing to my customers regarding the message about the Bangai, finally, being placed on the Endanged list.
If the retailers and professionals cannot spread the word, who can . . .
It is sad that it had to come to this, being that these animals are easily bred in captivity!
Thank you everyone for your hard work on saving this fish!
Danielle Meadows,
Vice President
The Coral Shoppe, div.
The Coral Conservation Company, LLC
"Leave only bubbles . . .Seek out aquacultured corals."
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Postby mpedersen » Tue Sep 18, 2007 10:28 pm

I seriously do not mind a bit!!! Thanks for helping to spread the word!

Also, I think we can do more than just spreading the word - check out ... =8847#8847

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Postby Lady Baboon » Tue Sep 18, 2007 11:23 pm

I just send out the information to the ZML forum in Germany.

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Postby avagelli » Thu Dec 04, 2008 1:05 pm

The link (below) will take you to the Live Reef Fish Bulletin, where three articles dealing with the conservation of Banggai cardinalfish were published and can be freely accessed.

I was invited to write a paper about my experience with the proposal to include the Banggai cardinalfish in CITES and its conservation status. In this paper, I summarize the biological characteristics of the BC and point out their value from a biological and ecological standpoint. I describe the current conservation situation of the species based on data from my latest fieldwork in the Banggai Archipelago, including collecting pressure, population situation, and habitat degradation. Then I relate in some detail what actually happened with the proposal, from my original recommendation until its defeat at The Hague, exposing the truth about several issues that have been intentionally misrepresented by both government officials and economic interest groups.

With regards to the other two articles dealing with Banggai conservation, I think both are particularly revealing about the truth behind the Indonesian claims of conservation actions directed at the Banggai cardinalfish before the CITES meeting (June 2007).
My impression is that CITES Indonesia wants to have something to show at the next CITES meeting about their compromise in setting a responsible management plan. Eventually people would realize that they lied about their claims regarding conservation actions, aquaculture, etc. at the COP 14. In addition, after the inclusion of BC in the (IUCN) red list, they no longer can claim that the fish is not under threat.

The author of one paper was recently contracted by the local government to help develop a management plan on Banggai cardinalfish. However, his writing raises serious doubts about his qualifications for this work.
Typically, they come out with an impressive name (“Banggai Marine Conservation Area Management”), but almost nothing else. However, that plus a short snorkeling trip to a few near-by spots and a signatures from the local authorities will be enough material for Indonesia to claim that they are doing a great job in protecting the BC and opposing a CITES listing.


I will leave to you the judgment of these contrasted versions of the Banggai cardinalfish reality. However, I want to correct (in bold) a few claims about biological aspects of BC that were published in Mr. Lilley‘s paper:

Page 3 (intro): “...because of concerns from some quarters that over-collection might lead to its extinction in the wild. Several BCF population studies point to this possibility (Kolm and Berglund 2003; Vagelli and Erdmann 2002; author’s observations) but accurate current wild population estimates are still unavailable.”

Current estimates of wild populations are available: They were provided to CITES Indonesia, to various Indonesian federal government agencies, and to the regional and local Banggai Fisheries department. They were judged accurate enough to be used by IUCN to include the BC in the red list as endangered.

Page 5: “According to the collectors, BCF populations occur around many of the 123 islands in the Banggai Archipelago, but there was general agreement among collectors interviewed that these populations may be suffering from overexploitation.”

The Banggai Archipelago comprises less than half of their imaginary 123 islands. There are about 60 islands with a size of about 1 km or larger. In fact, the Banggai cardinalfish occurs in only 32 islands within the entire Archipelago.

Page 6: “BCF live in groups in and among coral heads, anemones, seagrass, jellyfish, and sea urchins (Fig. 4). If the reef is badly degraded or there are high levels of nitrates in the water (i.e. near dwellings, piers and raw sewage outlets), algal growth is encouraged, which in turn promotes the proliferation of black long-spined sea urchins, Diadema setosum. In areas where the coral cover has been destroyed and the reef flat is covered in algae, numerous groups of Diadema sea urchins become the main refuges for BCF.”

BC living with jellyfish (see below)?? High levels of nitrates? Where? Algae growth caused by nitrates, therefore leading to urchins? This may be part of a marine biology course, but is not the reality in Banggai. There is no connection between urchin use by BC and loss of coral cover. Urchins (together with anemones and branching corals) are substrates with which BC is naturally associated. In areas where coral cover is destroyed by dynamite, BC is absent.

“The fish were also observed swimming very close to the walls of piers. In other words, it seems likely that, once the reef has been degraded and there are no more corals or seagrass in which BCF can hide, they will “make do” with hiding in the sea urchins, which proliferate when the area becomes covered in algae.”

Evidently the author is not familiar with the natural habitat of BC, nor with published work on the ecology of the species. The few piers constructed in the Banggai region do not represent the natural oceanographic environment of the Banggai islands, where over 96% of the BC population is found. BC is rarely found in low-cover-rubble open areas. The overwhelming majority inhabits both coral reef areas and seagrass beds (which are not being diminished). In fact, the largest group ever localized was found within seagrass beds associated with anemones. After that one, the largest groups were found in both seagrass and coral reef areas associated with urchins.

“Although not observed firsthand, the team was told that BCF could occur in significant numbers in association with a certain (unidentified) species of jellyfish. Because BCF have a very low capacity for for dispersal, as they do not have a pelagic larval stage, it might be that the jellyfish provide a means of dispersal for BCF by passive drifting on ocean currents. It is important to understand this and other dispersal mechanisms for species management purposes. DNA studies (Hoffman et al. 2005) indicate significant genetic differences within BCF sub-populations, which need to be preserved for the continued well-being of the species.”

This is quite a revealing statement. Hopefully, the author will become more aquatinted with both the regional ecology and the BC biology before preparing the conservation project…
Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that BC can disperse pelagically associated with the tentacles of large jellyfish!!, that jellyfish are able to drift about 30-50 cm off the bottom without becoming tangled in urchin spines, coral branches, seagrass leaves, etc., and that BC somehow can move away from the reef area protected by the jellies (that coincidentally happen to drift where BC are located and eager to move with them), and that they are able to drift together with "ocean currents."
Now, how can this amazing statement be reconciled with the very next one: that DNA studies by Hoffman et al. found such large genetic differences among populations (which is only possible if the populations remain isolated without gene exchange for very long periods of time)?? How do we reconcile that assumption (which the author found credible enough to mention) with the fact that this species does not occur naturally outside the Banggai Archipelago? Does the author believe that the aforementioned ocean currents taking the jellyfish loaded with BC only occurs between a few very closely localized islands?

The facts are: a.) Jellyfish are conspicuously absent in the Banggais (and it is hard to imagine jellies easily drifting in the shallow areas inhabited by BC), and b.) BC do not associate with planktonic jellyfish, nor with any pelagic organism.
The BC is a sedentary species that remains attached to benthic living substrates. They display highly developed homing behavior and never remain higher than about 1m in the water column above substrates, and more commonly less than half of that height.

I hope the articles will help clarify the Banggai cardinalfish’s real conservation situation. Also, I think they will provide a better understanding of the difficulties that are facing CITES proposals aimed at including species threatened in the wild by the international trade.

Finally, it has brought to my attention that critical statements divulged on the web challenge the precarious conservation situation of the Banggai cardinalfish in the wild. No doubt it is easy to post comments in an environment that does not require a previous critical review, nor concrete data. Furthermore, when the comments come from people apparently well- known in the marine aquarium hobbyist community, they may have more influence than those made based upon studies carried out in the field but with less audience exposure.

One clarification that is important to keep in mind when some of these experts “objectively” describe the abundance of BC in the wild, based on their “in –situ” observations is that there exist two very different situations: One is what occurs in the Lembeh Strait in North Sulawesi where BC was artificially introduced in 2000 and you can find large groups generally undisturbed. They are under the watch of the dive-centers operators who keep moving BC to different spots in both the Sulawesi coast and in Lembeh Island for an expanded dive experience while disregarding the local ecology. However, this does not represent at all the species conservation status.

The second situation is what is happening with BC in its natural distributional area, where besides the unsustainable collecting that already diminished the species by almost 90%, the rampant dynamite fishing is destroying its habitat.

I take this opportunity to encourage every Banggai cardinalfish fan to stop buying wild-caught specimens. The hobbyists have the power of deciding the future of this endangered species. I believe that carries a high degree of responsibility. If neither the conservation agencies nor the host country are willing to protect it, what will determine the future of this species is your decision of whether or not to buy wild-caught specimens.

Keep in mind that specimens purchased at a local store represent lucky survivors of groups captured and held in nets for days or weeks. Some individuals from those groups die in those nets, and many more during the 24-72 hours of precarious transport from the nets to a buyer facility, while others are “discarded” because of damaged fins before exportation. Some individuals from those groups die after the first flight between Indonesia and Singapore, and others upon arrival in the USA, Europe, or Asia. In fact, many times entire shipments of those survivors die soon upon arrival to a wholesaler facility.

I urge the hobbyist community to avoid acquiring wild-caught Banggais until proper protective measures/trade regulations are in place (CITES or equivalent).
My hope is that most hobbyists will be willing to pay a few extra dollars for captive bred individuals, knowing that they can have the enjoyment of keeping this amazing fish without contributing to the demise of its natural populations.

Thank you

A. Vagelli
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Postby KathyL » Thu Dec 04, 2008 3:10 pm

Thank you for this important information.

I have recently given a presentation to my local club urging members not to buy wild caught BCs, to discourage stores from buying WC BCs, and why. Given the web publication of E. Bournemann's MACNA XX slides, and Dr. Vagelli's message here, anyone reading this can put together a presentation to their local club, and get the message out.

This is something anyone can, and I think, should do.
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Postby FMarini » Thu Dec 04, 2008 3:57 pm

Glad you could stop in, and Thanks for the update. We had posted the Live reef fish bulletin link a while back, but your comments are particularly telling.
As for Bobs comments about the abundance of BC. You are correct, its not reality, its dive reality. I've have friends who dive those regions regularly and you should see the photos, literally what looks like 1000s of BC everywhere, including in Bali. Based on those dive trips alone, one would come off w/ the fact that these fish couldn't be endangered.

The good news from this is that if the BC population can be "cared for" and not harvested, then the species has a relatively quick recovery period.

Again-- Thanks for everything
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Postby avagelli » Fri Dec 05, 2008 3:10 pm

Thanks for the follow up. I take it as an opportunity to expand on the present situation of the BC.

The species lost about 90% of its historical size, including the extinction of a few populations already. If not regulated, the current harvest rate will keep reducing the species size and very likely more populations will be lost (remember that this species possesses an extraordinary genetic structure, so losing populations in this case means losing distinct genetic lines).

Extinction is a normal occurrence in the natural world and it happens for a variety of reasons, particularly due to environmental disturbances and genetic bottlenecks.
The BC has been around probably for several dozens of millions of years, and so far it has been able to handle the undoubtedly significant environmental challenges imposed by the particular complex geological history of its distribution area. This, coupled with its distinct reproductive biology, has probably led to its peculiar geographic distribution and to the mentioned genetic isolation of its populations. However, I don’t think that the BC could have survived with only a tiny fraction of its original population. A minimum population size is required to sustain these randomly induced mortality events in addition to those imposed by normal mortality factors that keep populations in check (such as predation, resource limitation, disease, etc.). When a population (here a species) reaches such a low size level, as is the case with the BC, it is much less capable of dealing with any catastrophic event (think about how close the tsunami was that affected Sumatra).

Grave geological-environmental disturbances that surely affected the BC habitat in the past for million of years, were probably irregular events. For the last decades, however, a significant environmental disturbance (substrate destruction by dynamite) is constantly expanding to areas where BC inhabits. This is not a random once-in-a–century/millennium event - it is occurring daily.

Then, what are the chances for this species to recover? I think that if the collecting is very significantly reduced or stopped altogether, and dynamite fishing (and cyanide use) is halted in most of its small range, then the species will start recovering. But it will take time, much more than the eight years that it took for those introduced specimens in Lembeh to become small established populations.
If collecting pressure is only partially reduced, the species will still be in a very precarious situation because of its present reduced size.
What are the chances of a significant reduction in collection/dynamite fishing in the near future? I don’t know, but there is no evidence that it will happen soon.

I do not believe that collectors will harvest to the last specimen. Well before that the capture of BC would be either banned, or it would become absolutely unprofitable because of simple cost-effective rules. However, if the populations keep decreasing in size, then many other factors with which the species is normally capable of dealing (outbreaks of diseases/parasites, unusual increase in predation pressure, bad recruitment season for whatever reason, etc.) can become much more significant, possibly leading to a non-recovery situation.

You may ask, if that happens, can outside groups be re-introduced in the original range? Perhaps, assuming that enough suitable environments still remains. But, would the local government be willing to put up the resources to carry out such re-introduction, for long-term monitoring, and for enforcing the necessary ban in habitat degradation? I doubt it. It would be much simpler to regulate capture now.
In any case, it is a very tricky thing to remove a species from its ecosystem (as well as to artificially introduce into another, as it ironically happened with the BC in Lembeh and other sites). How can the impact of its removal/introduction be foreseen? Just a few issues in the BC case: An important component of its diet is larval stages of a number of parasites affecting other species of fishes. BC host their own parasites, and I still do not know if the Megalocytivirus virus we described in imported specimens is present in natural populations. BC compete with other fishes for substrates, and it is part of the diet of other organisms.

The point I try to make here is that because some of the introduced groups, particularly those very close to the dive centers on the Lembeh margin or those living in deeper water in the Sulawesi margin, are okay. This, however, does not give us reason to assume that the species can recover easily. The introduced groups are not a good representation of the species. Actually, some live in a habitat quite unrepresentative of its natural one.
I think it is important for those who dive in those places where BC was introduced and see large groups associated with large clumps or urchins and some big anemones not to lose perspective of the entire situation. You may came back with the idea that BC is doing just fine, and do not understand all of these dire conservation prospects. If so, it is probably because you did not connect what you saw with what enables a species to be in good shape, and probably did not compare its situation with species of the same family.

I found that it is difficult for a lot of people including, unfortunately for the BC, FAO fisheries biologists, to grasp the concept of a marine species restricted to such a limited geographic range. It is extremely unusual for a marine fish. You might see a big group of BC in one spot, but there are not too many of such spots! On the other hand, you can easily encounter similar large groups of other cardinalfishes (or individuals from any other family), but they are also found in many other places, sometimes spread throughout entire oceanic regions. When divers see those introduced groups, they should remember that they have been there for only a few years, and it will simply take a die-off event of those urchins full of BC to wipe out most of those groups. It has happened before in other places, so why could it not happen there? Maybe not this year or the next one, but in 10 or 20? Lots of bad things are happening in those areas: rising temperature, coral diseases, lots of human garbage, etc.

An important point: BC is endangered not only because its populations have been decimated, but also because of its extreme endemism. The natural range of the species encompasses an area of only about 43 x 43 miles (~ 70 x 70 km) – that is it for the entire natural range! To have an accurate image of the BC situation, think of it as if it was a freshwater species that is confined (within that small area) to 32 small lakes without connection among them. Furthermore, the fish can only inhabit narrow strips along selected parts of the coastlines. In a few larger lakes several populations can be found, but they are completely isolated from each other. Now, imagine that you harvest enough individuals to leave only 10 % of the original number. At the same time, dynamite fishing is blowing up extensive areas where the species lives or potentially could have inhabited. Cyanide is diminishing part of the habitats, and some diseases are spreading and killing the substrates where the species lives. This is the present situation of the BC.

Best regards,

A. Vagelli
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