Feds Offer Some Protection to Chambered Nautilus

The chambered nautilus.

(CN) – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has listed the chambered nautilus as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, citing demand for its shells as the main threat.

“Chambered nautiluses are valued for their distinctive, coiled shells, which are traded internationally. We identified this trade as the driving force behind the commercial harvest and subsequent decline in N. pompilius populations to the point where the species is likely to become an endangered species in the foreseeable future,” Maggie Miller, natural resource management specialist with NOAA fisheries, said.

Because the nautilus is found mostly in foreign Indo-Pacific waters – apart from American Samoa in the South Pacific – the fisheries service has not specified critical habitat for the species. The agency will continue to take comments and submissions of scientific information for a possible future habitat designation for waters within U.S. jurisdiction, according to the action.

However, listing foreign species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act is helpful in “sending a strong international signal that urgent actions are needed to prevent the animals’ extinction,” the Center for Biological Diversity noted in a response to the listing. “However, the fisheries service chose not to close or limit the U.S. nautilus import market.”

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned on behalf of the nautilus in May 2016. The marine fisheries agency responded with its positive 90-day finding on the petition in August 2016, and launched the next step in the process to list the species under the Endangered Species Act, a 12-month review and proposal to list, this past October. The chambered nautilus is an iconic species in the United States due to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem named for it, which includes the line “build more stately mansions, O, my soul.”

“The news that the chambered nautilus now has protections under the Endangered Species Act is delightful. These amazing spiral-shelled creatures are in trouble, and listing will help their recovery. I am, however, disappointed that the feds are delaying action to prohibit trade because nautilus are most threatened by the international shell trade,” Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email.

When asked about that, the fisheries service’s Maggie Miller responded: “To address the threat of international trade, all nautilus species were added to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), with this listing going into effect as of Jan.  2, 2017. This means that export of nautilus products, such as shells, requires CITES permits that ensure the products were legally acquired.

“Because overutilization of the species for international trade was identified as the primary threat, and international trade of the species is now being managed under CITES, we determined that additional measures under Section 9(a)(1) of the ESA are not necessary for the conservation of the species at this time,” Miller continued, adding the agency will continue to monitor and will revisit import restrictions if needed.

Photo of a chambered nautilus. (NOAA)

Sakashita said such restrictions are already necessary.

“Endangered Species Act protection will help, but it’s disappointing that the Trump administration delayed badly needed protective regulations that would prohibit imports of chambered nautilus shells,” Sakashita noted in the group’s statement. “If we don’t get rules to rein in this booming commercial trade, it’ll continue to be a major threat to survival of these shellfish.”

Many “sea shells” come from various members of the mollusk family, but the nautilus belongs to the same family as octopuses and squid and is the only member of the cephalopod family that has an external shell. Its distinctive shell holds a particular fascination for shell collectors, which has contributed to alarming declines in nautilus populations.

“For example, one population in the Philippines declined more than 80 percent in just 15 years,” the conservation group said. Several of the small isolated populations have already become locally extinct.

The nautilus is found in the fossil records relatively unchanged over 500 million years. They are also long-lived animals that do not become sexually mature until they are around 17 years old. They lay only 10-20 eggs per year, which take a year to incubate, so the species is not able to quickly bounce back from intense shell collecting.

The final listing of the nautilus as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act is effective 30 days from the expected publication date of Sept. 28.


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