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Was CITES COP16 a game-changer for online outreach at wildlife management meetings?

davesquareCITES logo

As 16th Conference of the Parties of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES COP16, pronounced sight-eze) comes to a close, I’d like to reflect on something that made this meeting unlike almost any other wildlife conservation and management meeting in history. Yes, history was made as delegates voted to list commercially exploited shark species for the first time, and history was made when manta rays became the first shark or ray species  to be listed under CITES the first time they were proposed, and that’s all fantastic news. However, what I believe made CITES COP16 a game-changer for wildlife conservation and management was the large-scale inclusion of online outreach by both attendees and organizers. For the first time ever, interested members of the public from all over the world could follow along (and to some degree, participate) in real time.

Information about the proposals was shared online.

The CITES4sharks coalition, which included 6 conservation organizations with many years of expertise in marine conservation and management , was instrumental in sharing information about CITES COP16, both before and during the meeting. The CITES4sharks website was used to share not only the exact wording of each shark and ray conservation proposal up for discussion at CITES, but detailed and jargon-free fact sheets about each species up for protection. Each was available in several languages. The website also contained video interviews with scientific and policy experts explaining why CITES protection was both appropriate and necessary. CITES4sharks included Southern Fried Science contributor Sonja Fordham, who has been involved in every effort to list sharks and rays under CITES.

CITES4sharks logo

Additionally, the IUCN Shark Specialist Group shared summaries of each day’s events in the form of blog posts, including jargon-free summaries of what had been discussed and decided. Traffic to the IUCN Shark Specialist Group website more than doubled during CITES, showing that people were very interested.

The proceedings were live-streamed online.

Video of the debates and votes was shared live online. Though the feed was sometimes choppy, likely because organizers vastly underestimated how many people would be interested in using this service, this is truly revolutionary. To my knowledge, only International Whaling Commission meetings have ever done anything like this. While I’ve read hundreds of news articles and scientific papers about fisheries and wildlife management, this was the first time I’ve ever been able to see and hear the process.  It filled me with pride to see my country’s representatives speak publicly in favor of science-based conservation and management, and filled me with anger  to see some delegates use long-debunked arguments (and, in some cases, flat out lies) to oppose these protections. It was a completely different experience than reading about it in the newspaper, and it was absolutely enthralling. Despite the time zone difference, I watched almost all of the shark and ray discussions, which involved staying up until 5:30 in the morning. I wasn’t alone.

A screenshot of the webcast

A screenshot of the webcast

Proposals, debates, and votes were discussed on twitter

As discussed in my guide to following shark conservation proposals on twitter, many of the NGOs in attendance were live-tweeting the meeting, sharing not only real-time descriptions of what was happening, but their own expert commentary. Additionally, due to the instantaneous nature of twitter, many other experts from around the world (including myself) were able to join in the discussion. You can read my Storify of selected tweets from the meeting here. Even the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, whose role as unbiased, expert advisers prevented them from advocating for any particular proposal, was able to join in the discussion.

“I felt that it was important to keep people updated through our live tweets of results (and secret ballot requests) as well as the jargon free description of the process,” said Lucy Harrison, IUCN Shark Specialist Group Program officer. “I saw a lot of miscommunication after the votes – i.e. that the species were DEFINITELY protected, when that wasn’t going to be finalized until Plenary, so I tried to correct and educate people.”

The CITES4sharks coalition also created their own twitter account for the meeting, which provided original content in addition to RT-ing updates from member organizations’ twitter accounts.  At one point, shortly after the  first of many successful votes, #CITES4sharks even trended on twitter!

Trending

CITES itself had an online presence

CITES had an official twitter account and Facebook Fan Page, which was used to share updates throughout the meeting. The Facebook fan page, which has more than 200,000 “Likes”, shared photos of each species that received enough votes to receive a CITES listing, allowing fans to easily share the news in a multimedia format. This was primarily used for one-way communications, such as announcements of the outcome of votes,  but could very easily be used for two-way communications, such as answering people’s questions about the process and procedures.

CITES fb

Citizens directly contacted their CITES delegates

An online campaign organized by Shark Defenders called #StandByYourVote encouraged people to contact their CITES delegate directly and ask them not to overturn shark conservation proposals. That post featured links to delegates’ e-mail addresses, organized by country, which have now been removed. “#StandByYourVote let government delegates hear from their citizens back home right before the crucial vote,” said Angelo Villagomez of Shark Defenders.  People also shared tweets with that hashtag via twitter, and photos featuring campaign information on Facebook.

plenary4

 It’s worth noting that I don’t personally recommend using this tactic. While the idea is worthy, getting tons of e-mails can annoy just as easily as encourage. Additionally,  although this wasn’t the organizers’ intention, a few e-mails included racism and violent threats, and numerous delegates (including delegates that were strong supporters of the proposals) complained about harassment. Regardless,  #StandByYourVote was certainly an example of using the internet to take citizen involvement in wildlife management to a new level, and I expect it to continue. The proverbial genie is out of the bottle.

What impact did online outreach have on the outcomes?

It’s impossible to say for sure, but environmental cynics have long feared that certain countries may vote a certain way because of a belief that no one is paying attention.  While many ballots at this year’s CITES were secret, everyone could see who was speaking for or against a proposal, and many countries announced their votes in the interest of transparency. If nothing else, online outreach efforts seem to have demonstrated to some delegates that many people all around the world care about the outcome of the meeting and are watching closely. That can’t hurt.

Is online outreach the future of wildlife conservation meetings?

The number of people participating virtually in discussions surrounding CITES certainly shows that there’s a lot of public interest in these meetings, regardless of what time zone they’re in.  I predict and hope that before long, many similar meetings including future CITES,  Convention on Migratory Species meetings, and perhaps even some Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, will take steps towards transparency via online outreach. When that happens, I’ll happily stay up all night watching and joining the discussions on twitter, and I hope you’ll join me again!