Triton Domestic Trade Project

Project title:
The monitoring of domestic trade in the Giant Triton (Charonia tritonis)

Project summary:
The giant triton is sold in most shell shops in Australia despite being protected under Queensland law with the specimens that are for sale allegedly coming from overseas. The giant triton is a known predator of the crown-of-thorns starfish and live tritons are very difficult to find on the Great Barrier Reef or elsewhere. The levels of domestic and international trade of this species are unknown and trade figures together with population data are required to justify the CITES Listing of this species.

Project Description:

(a) Need (why you think the project is necessary?)
The giant triton (Charonia tritonis) is a large and extremely beautiful shell that is being collected and killed by humans for the shell trade. It belongs to a group of very similar species that occur in every ocean preying primarily on starfish. On the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reefs of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it is known to prey on the crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci).

While it is extremely difficult to prove that the abundance of the giant triton has been altered by human activities, there has been speculation regarding a link with outbreaks of the starfish. The past and present levels of trade in this species, and the extent to which this trade has resulted in a decline in the population numbers of the giant triton is unknown. It is generally regarded as uncommon on the Great Barrier Reef, and it has been protected in Queensland since 1969 (fisheries act 1976-84, second schedule “protected species”). While the giant triton is protected under Queensland law it is not listed in either Appendix 1, 2 or 3 of the Convention in Trade of Endangered Species (CITES).

Specimens of the giant triton can be found in any large shell shop in Queensland despite its legal protection, selling at from $50 to $200 depending on the size and physical condition of the shell. Collection of this species is illegal in several Pacific Island nations but whether the law affords true protection has never been examined. There appears to be no way of knowing where a particular specimen was collected and while we have banned the collection of this species on our own coral reefs we allow unrestricted trade in specimens providing they are gathered from other countries.

This project will monitor the trade in this species with a view to its eventual listing in Appendix II of the Convention in Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) Treaty. This project will not only gather data relevant to a CITES listing, but also justify the present protection of this species under Queensland law. This listing will provide considerable international pressure to restrict the killing of this extremely large and beautiful shell.

(b) Objectives (what you hope to achieve?)
This project will establish the annual turnover in retail stock of the giant triton at shell shops throughout Queensland. The extent of this trade will be examined across Queensland and the data collected by a number of school groups will be entered, summarised and displayed through a web-site database. This will allow a large number of school students to be directly involved in active conservation research as well as provide on-line data relevant to the strategic planning of environmental managers.

This project will increase the awareness of ‘at risk’ species and in particular will draw attention to invertebrates that are poorly represented in our list of endangered species. This project will demonstrate that while a species may be protected under Queensland State law, it can be legally traded providing that the specimens are obtained from overseas. It will show that true protection of a rare but widespread species is only afforded by Commonwealth action to list the giant triton in Appendix II of the CITES Treaty.

Whether or not a CITES listing proposal is successful depends on the actions of other countries that are outside the control of our Government. However, this project will have contributed to the protection of the giant triton by focusing attention on the continuing domestic trade and the possibility of illegal trade in poached specimens of a species protected under Queensland law.

(c) Methodology (how you will do the project?)
Trade in this species appears to be most easily examined at the retail level. The numerous shell shops along the Queensland coastline from Coolangatta to Thursday Island all carry stock of the giant triton. Providing no damage was done to the shells, they could easily be counted and examined. To establish the turnover rate, it will be necessary to note the number of giant tritons on the shelves of each shell shop every day. This will be accomplished by the collective effort of a relatively large number of school groups each monitoring a particular shell shop.

Because the triton shell is quite expensive ($50-$150), all retail stock is on show and as one or more shells are sold, the shopkeepers will need to order stock and there will be an inevitable delay in supply that results in the number for sale decreasing temporarily. Each school group will enter their data into a common web-site database. They will be able to continuously monitor summary data as it accumulates for the different regions. This stock data will provide trade information at a number of different geographic scales. For example, the data from each shell shop would be expected to show ups and downs in stock numbers that reflect the local sales of triton shells and the delays in their resupply.

However, on a much larger geographic scale, when the data from all of Queensland is compared, the ups and downs in stock numbers will reflect the wholesale market and large-scale fluctuations in supply. Over an extended time period, large-scale fluctuations may occur due to seasonally / annually varying collection effort or species abundance. If possible, overall retail data will be compared with wholesale statistics.

(d) Outputs/Outcomes (when completed, how will this project have made a direct contribution to tackling the problems/issues listed above?)

  1. This project will establish the number of giant tritons (a species protected in Queensland) that are annually collected and killed overseas to satisfy the trade demands of the Queensland tourists and shell collectors.
  2. This project will increase the public awareness of the extent of this trade and the threat that it represents to the continued viability of this large and beautiful species of shell.
  3. This project will provide the first real data on the collection and trade of a marine invertebrate species that is not part of a recognised commercial fishery in Australia.
  4. This project will provide the data necessary for Environment Australia to recommend the listing of the giant triton on Appendix II of the CITES Treaty.
  5. This will greatly reduce the number of these rare animals that are collected and killed by restricting the international trade of specimens for ornaments and shell collections.
  6. In addition, this project will involve a community of young students in a conservation program that widens their perception of ‘at risk’ species.

In general, invertebrate species are not considered highly when it comes to conservation. However, many invertebrate species may play a major ecological / economic role by being either predators or prey of commercially important species.

(e) Long-term maintenance and implementation. (how your project outcomes will be maintained in the long term?)
This project has involved a large number of school groups along the entire Queensland coastline from Coolangatta to Thursday Island in the data collection process. Both the students as well as their teachers will have learnt a great deal about the basics of data gathering and analysis. The monitoring of trade in this species by such groups will continue long after the conclusion of this project.

The use of Internet technology in the flow of data has enabled wide spread observations and collective data entry as well as web-based data summary and final analysis. This procedure will provide the young students with a model of operation that would be applicable to international monitoring of trade in the giant triton as well as future studies of other ‘at risk’ species.

While the day to day legal enforcement of trade restrictions will be reliant on various government agencies, an education program run by these same school groups, (which is the subject of another application) will ensure the general and continued cooperation of tourists, tourist operators, shell collectors and traders.