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Small win for big fish: convention moves to protect sharks

Each year around 100 million sharks are killed for their fins. The sharks are often pulled from the water, their fins are sliced off and they are thrown back in to drown. The industry is built on the high…

The demand for shark fins has pushed threatened shark species from 15 in 1996 to 180 in 2010. Choo Yut Shing

Each year around 100 million sharks are killed for their fins. The sharks are often pulled from the water, their fins are sliced off and they are thrown back in to drown. The industry is built on the high prices paid for shark fins, which are used to make shark fin soup. Encouragingly, last week international agreement was reached to control trade in some species' fins.

The move comes at a time when China’s growing middle class is demanding increasing numbers of fins in the face of already unsustainable harvest rates. Sharks are late maturing species which reproduce slowly and whose numbers cannot rebuild quickly. Although less is known about sharks than many other species, they are critical to ocean health and overfishing is having a negative impact. For example, the scientific evidence points to a decline in numbers of oceanic whitetip sharks of over 90% in some regions. More broadly, the total number of “threatened” shark species has increased significantly from 15 in 1996, to 180 in 2010. This poor conservation statistic is mainly due to demand for fins.

In light of this, the meeting of 178 State parties in Thailand earlier this month represents a win for sharks, albeit a small one. The 16th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) signed off on a number of proposals for new listings of sharks. The listings will reduce the international fin trade but on their own may not be enough to save the 180 threatened shark species.

This year’s conference considered a record number of proposals, including 55 new listings and increasing protection measures for species such as polar bears (which was defeated). There were seven proposals to list shark and ray species. These proposals came in the wake of past unsuccessful efforts to list more species, the subsequent adoption of a non-binding memorandum on shark conservation by the parties to the Convention on Migratory Species, and a global trend to establish shark sanctuaries and ban finning.

Scalloped hammerheads' fins attract a high price, which is bad news for the shark. flickkerphotos/Flickr

Proposals were submitted to newly list sharks and rays on Appendix II, which restricts trade by requiring importing and exporting countries to each issue permits and certificates in support of such trade. There was also a proposal to elevate one species to Appendix I, which prohibits international commercial trade, including trade in parts and derivatives such as fins and gills.

Oceanic whitetip and porbeagle sharks as well as three species of hammerheads were successfully listed on Appendix II. In addition, the giant manta ray has won Appendix II listing. The freshwater sawfish (in the same group as sharks) has been elevated to Appendix I, effectively prohibiting its international trade. 

The scalloped hammerhead is under considerable threat because its fins have a high market value. Manta rays are targeted for their gill rakes, which are used in traditional medicines. The porbeagle shark has historically been harvested for its meat, considered a delicacy in Europe, resulting in alarming declines in numbers. 

Giant manta rays have been protected under Appendix II.

One of the reasons that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species is so significant is its underlying conservation ethic - to ensure international trade does not threaten the survival of species. Fisheries agreements, on the other hand, are primarily focused on supporting the industry. Nonetheless, listing under the convention will not by itself address the plight of sharks.

Ultimately, international management of sharks remains unsatisfactory. Even with the new listings, only about 2% of shark species are protected. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species only relates to international trade and does not protect animals from domestic harvest. For example, listing will not directly prevent shark culling or finning, even for those shark species now listed. 

Historically, the key shark fishing nations and those with the major markets (China, Japan and Singapore for example) have opposed listing under the convention. They would rather have fisheries regulation. At this meeting several nations, Australia included, argued listing was complementary to Regional Fishery Management Organisation measures.

International trade is not the only concern for sharks. Where sharks are caught in tuna fisheries, for example, discarding them as bycatch is equally unsustainable. Fisheries regulations that address bycatch, through measures such as equipment regulation and seasonal and area closures, are important. And instruments such as the Convention on Migratory Species are critical because many sharks are migratory or use various inshore areas for breeding, pupping, feeding and nursery grounds.  

The recent listings under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species are a step in the right direction, but the improved global governance of sharks is urgently needed. It is unlikely support will emerge for a species-specific treaty, but existing instruments can be made to work better. Research must be undertaken to identify how to make that happen, for the sake of all sharks and rays. But just for the moment we should celebrate the success in Thailand: these protections are a major achievement in the convention’s 40th year.