WASHINGTON (CN) – Due to over-collection for the international shell trade, the iconic chambered nautilus has passed the first hurdle to gain federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. In its 90-day petition finding, the National Marine Fisheries Service has agreed that a petition to list the nautilus as a threatened or endangered species under the ESA filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) merits further review.
“This is fantastic news, because without help, the chambered nautilus is facing extinction. We’re lucky to share a planet with these ancient creatures, and I’m hoping we can ensure that our fascination with their beguiling, fractal shells doesn’t lead to their demise,” CBD’s marine scientist, Dr. Abel Valdivia, said.
Nearly 1.7 million nautilus shell products were imported into the U.S. over the past 16 years, the CBD said. According to the agency’s petition finding, more than 900,000 chambered nautilus shell products were imported to the U.S. between 2005 and 2014, with 85 percent of those items coming in from the Philippines, the rest coming from Indonesia, China and India.
The CBD petition, filed on May 31, followed on the heels of an April 2016 report published by the World Wildlife Fund’s wildlife trade monitoring network, known as TRAFFIC. The report was jointly funded by the NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the two federal ESA listing agencies.
“In the Philippines, nautilus remains an unregulated fishery with no controls on harvest or trade apart from a prohibition on harvest in a municipal jurisdiction. TRAFFIC’s investigation found that more than half of the 162 shops visited offered nautilus products for sale in the form of whole shells, jewellery, art, furniture, handicrafts, and souvenirs targeted towards tourists” TRAFFIC reported.
After the TRAFFIC report was published, the United States, Fiji, India and Palau jointly proposed that all species in the nautilus family be added to the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora, or CITES, Appendix II. CITES is a global treaty involving more than 180 countries, to protect species from extinction due to international trade. The proposal will be considered at the next CITES meeting in September in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Nautiluses are related to squid and other octopods, and are little changed from their occurrence in fossil records spanning 500 million years, making them one of the oldest “living fossils.”
According to the CITES proposal, chambered nautiluses are native to tropical reef habitats in Indo-Pacific countries such as American Samoa, Australia and the Solomon Islands, among others. They can live at least 20 years, but may not reach reproductive maturity until they are 10 to 15 years old. They produce a small number of eggs each year, but the incubation period can be up to a year long. Their small reef populations are separated by deep ocean waters, which they apparently do not traverse, so re-colonization of depleted populations is unlikely.
The NMFS found that even though the nautilus faces additional threats from ocean acidification, which affects shell formation, as well as from climate change and habitat degradation, the threat from shell collection, or as the agency calls it, “overutilization of the species for commercial purposes,” may pose such a threat by itself that the species may be at risk of extinction now or in the near future.
According to the agency’s petition finding, estimates of the nautilus catch in the Philippines “from four main nautilus fishing locations in the Palawan region has decreased by around 80 percent over a period of less than 30 years.”
While ESA listing would only have jurisdiction over U.S. waters where nautiluses are found, such as American Samoa, it would also affect imports of listed species or their parts into the U.S., and would provide a basis for the U.S. to encourage other countries to enforce their own conservation and trade laws.
The agency will now conduct a 12-month status review, and if it is found that listing is warranted, it will issue a listing proposal. A final listing regulation would then be expected within a year following the proposal.
“The chambered nautilus is being collected and sold into extinction for jewelry and other trinkets,” Valdivia said. “It’s a tragedy. The protection of the Endangered Species Act could play a lifesaving role for these incredible animals.”
Information and comments are due Oct. 25.
Nautilis cup photo credit: United States public domain