Hardly any coral fishes or marine invertebrates are protected. There is no trade monitoring, and trade figures are based on estimates only (see Trade). Thus, all available data comes from traders and sellers themselves. Of these, only one fifth of traders were willing to disclose trade figures.


The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) is an international convention that aims to regulate trade in listed endangered species of flora and fauna in order to protect them from over-exploitation.

Due largely to our research, the EU, US and Switzerland, jointly submitted document CoP18, Doc. 94 on ‘Conservation management of and trade in marine ornamental fishes’ at the 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, in 2019 with a view to scrutinising the trade in these species. This proposition was accepted by all 183 CITES parties.

The same countries are currently co-financing a study on the trade (AC31, Doc. 36) and a report was planned to be submitted to the 19th Conference of the Parties in November 2022. However, as the pandemic has prevented any workshops from taking place to date, it was decided at the May 2021 CITES Animals Committee meeting that this should, rather, be submitted at the 20th Conference of the Parties at the earliest, but not before 2025, delaying this process for years. The consequences of such a delay on coral reefs are impossible to determine, as populations of coral reef fishes in the wild will continue to be impacted by the collection of specimens to supply the marine aquarium trade. Urgent action is needed nowThis is our proposition that we proposed at CITES conference CoP19 in November 2022.

For example, the EU – how it can change the system
All marine ornamental fishes enter the EU by air and must therefore be checked by customs at international airports. The EU operates TRACES which is an EU multilingual online platform used in 85 countries by 55 000 users created in 2004 to prevent animal diseases from entering the EU. It permits the collection of information electronically of live animals, animal products, feed and plants. However, many marine ornamental fishes are excluded, and the information collected is not adequate.

TRACES can easily be adapted to collect data and technicians confirm that an adaptation could in fact be easily implemented. Primarily, all roughly 4,000 species of coral reef fishes which may potentially be traded, should be listed under TRACES. To monitor this trade accurately, traders should only be allowed to record traded specimens at species rather than at genus or family level, as is the case currently. This can be implemented by deleting all family and genus names entries, leaving available the possibility of selecting the species name only. The source country (where the fish was caught) should be listed rather than permitting hub countries, such as Singapore, to be referred to as country of origin. TRACES should also record whether a fish is wild-caught or captive-bred so the impact on fish populations in the wild is not biased by the numbers of farmed fish.

EU’s 2020 commitment to ocean conservation and coral reef regeneration
The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, published in May 2020, pledges EU member states’ commitment to ocean conservation and coral reef regeneration and includes a key goal to restore and ‘properly protect’ marine ecosystems, avoiding the further extinction of species in so doing.

It is incredibly difficult to add a new species to the CITES appendices that affords varying degrees of protection. On the one hand, this is due to a lack of biological, ecological and economic knowledge, which is the case for almost all marine ornamental fishes (see IUCN below); and on the other hand, it takes the political will of the member countries to place a new species under protection. The example of the Banggai cardinalfishes clearly illustrates the dilemma of all these challenges (see Banggai cardinalfish).

THREE exceptions

The exceptions are seahorses (Hippocampus spp.), the Clarion angelfish (Holacanthus clarionensis) and the Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) which are included in the Appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species CITES (www.cites.org) and hence their trade numbers are collected.

Trade in seahorses and the Napoleon wrasse which is mainly eaten as it can reach 2.3 m in length and be too large for private aquaria, has required import and export documents since 2002, and trade figures have been collected. Since 2016, the Clarion angelfishes, which has a very small distribution off the coast of Mexico, has been on CITES Appendix II, which provide a restricted trade in the species. This means that commercial trade in the species listed on this Appendix is still permitted albeit under certain restrictions that is monitored by the importing and exporting countries. In addition, CITES member states are required to keep statistics on annual trade volumes.

The Red Lists of IUCN

IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) is not a conservation body in that it has no decision-making power. The organisation creates indicators of the state of biodiversity in the world and compiles a list of species and determines their protection status. It provides information on range, population size, habitat and ecology, use and/or trade, threats and conservation measures, which can serve as a basis for possible political conservation steps.

Often very little, if not nothing, is known about the biology and ecology of coral fishes. Therefore, it is inestimable which impact these removals have on the fish population and coral reefs. In 2018, almost 45 percent of known coral reef fish species remained unassessed by the IUCN Red List due to a lack of biological and ecological knowledge. [1]

Of the trade figures for the EU evaluated between 2014 and 2017, over a third of the fish species were also not assessed. For example, the two most traded species, the blue-green damselfishes (Chromis viridis) and the false clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris), have not been evaluated by the Red List. ‘Not assessed’ in this case means that ‘no extinction risk assessment has been made’ and therefore they are free to be traded.


The MAC (Marine Aquarium Council) certificate aimed to ensure sustainable trade in marine animals for aquariums.

The label was introduced in 1998 to ensure traceability, good practices and sustainable systems for responsible fishing from an environmental and social perspective. However, the label has not been active since 2008. [2]