In an historic day for shark conservation, five species of shark have been awarded additional protection at the CITES meeting in Bangkok, Thailand.
The oceanic whitetip shark is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List
Historic day for sharks
Conservationists have spent nearly two decades working to get sharks listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and at the latest meeting they have finally succeeded, winning the vote for five shark species and two species of manta ray to receive better protection. While similar proposals have been rejected in the past with strong opposition from China and Japan, new-found support from West African and Latin American countries swayed the most recent vote in favour of the sharks.
“Today’s outcome could be a turning point in how CITES can assist in the regulation of trade in marine species,” said Glenn Sant, Marine Programme leader with TRAFFIC. “If accepted in plenary, this meeting will go down in history as the one where CITES finally realised its marine potential.”
Restrictions and regulations
The seven species, three of which are highly threatened but commercially valuable, will now be listed under Appendix II of CITES. While this does not equate to an outright ban on trade in these species, it does mean that tougher regulations will be put in place, with the introduction of strictly controlled permits to import and export fins. Nations will face heavy sanctions if too many individuals of the species in question are fished.
During the meeting currently being held in Thailand, a two-thirds majority voted to upgrade the CITES status of the great hammerhead shark, scalloped hammerhead shark, smooth hammerhead shark, oceanic whitetip shark, porbeagle, giant manta ray and reef manta ray.
The porbeagle narrowly missed out on protection at the 2010 CITES meeting
Threats to sharks
As we reported in the ARKive blog earlier this month, sharks and rays face many threats, with an estimated 100 million individuals killed every year. Overfishing in particular has led to an unprecedented decline in shark numbers, and as these highly sought-after species are slow to mature and produce few offspring, they are extremely vulnerable to population crashes.
While the fins of the scalloped hammerhead are among the most valuable, protection has also been awarded to two other hammerhead species, as there was concern that these species could be targeted should only the scalloped hammerhead receive protection.
Shark fin soup is a delicacy in certain countries
Experts believe that the critical factor in the latest ground-breaking decision is the shift in the views of South American nations, who are coming to understand that live sharks are more valuable to local communities than dead ones.
“They’ve come to realise, particularly for those with hammerhead stocks, the tourist value of these species and the long term future that will be protected by a CITES listing,” said Dr Colman O’Criodain from WWF International.
An additional factor in the recent shark victory was money, with cash being made available from the European Union to help poorer countries change their fishing practices.
The great hammerhead is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List
Removing sharks from the ecosystem can have a serious and detrimental knock-on effect on the rest of the food chain. Without top predators, prey species can burgeon and destroy stocks of other commercially valuable species such as scallops.
“We are thrilled that the tide is now turning for shark conservation, with governments listening to the science and acting in the interests of sustainability,” said Elizabeth Wilson, manager of Pew’s Global Shark Conservation campaign. “With these new protections, they will have the chance to recover and once again fulfil their role as top predators.”
The battle is not over yet
While the latest news from CITES is promising for sharks, there is still the possibility that the ruling could be overturned – and hopes dashed – during the plenary session on the final day of proceedings. Back in 2010, the porbeagle won protection in earlier sessions, only to be stripped of it in the plenary by just one vote.
Yet there is still hope for the struggling shark species, and it is hoped that some good will come of the early decision.
“This is a landmark moment showing that the world’s governments support sustainable fisheries and are concerned about the reckless over-exploitation of sharks for commercial use,” said Carlos Drews, head of WWF’s delegation at CITES. “Today’s decision will go a long way in slowing down the frenzied overfishing of sharks that is pushing them to the brink of collapse to feed the luxury goods market.”
Read more on this story at BBC News – ‘Historic’ day for shark protection and The Guardian – Five shark species win protection against finning trade.
View photos and videos of sharks, rays and related species on ARKive.
Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author