Can CITES Save the Sharks?

As the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting continues this week in Bangkok, delegates have preliminarily approved a proposal that five shark and all manta ray species be “uplisted” to Appendix II, a move which will offer them a greater level of protection. Before now, there were no regulations on the international trade of the meat and fins of these species.

oceanic whitetip shark, Hawaii

Oceanic whitetip shark near Hawaii. This species is one of five shark species covered in the proposed international regulation of shark fin products currently under discussion at the CITES meeting in Bangkok. (© Chris Newbert/ Minden Pictures)

Sharks keep their marine ecosystems healthy by regulating populations of fish further down the food chain. They are also an important ecotourism draw in countries are varied as South Africa, Ecuador and Indonesia. But in spite of these benefits, overfishing has led to drastic declines in shark numbers. Their slow growth and reproductive rates make these species especially slow to bounce back.

Despite recent movements to ban shark fin soup in certain geographies, the soup is still one of the major threats driving the decline of sharks. Although there is no solid evidence showing any significant nutritional value in shark fin soup, the dish is prized as a delicacy at important social functions in China and other Asian countries.

However, there are signs that this is changing. Last week during China’s annual congress meetings in Beijing, over 70 Chinese legislators submitted proposals calling for the ban of shark fin soup from governmental and official banquets.

Here in Bangkok, the passage of this proposal would provide much-needed regulations for the species in question.

For example, take the oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus). The species, once widespread in tropical and subtropical waters, is usually found far offshore in all the world’s oceans. It is currently listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species (2006), and Critically Endangered in the northwest and west central Atlantic.

Although oceanic whitetip sharks are often caught as bycatch in tuna and swordfish fisheries, the unregulated international fin trade poses the biggest threat to their survival.

Over the last 40 years, catch data indicates a 99% decline in oceanic whitetip sharks in the Gulf of Mexico. Between 1992 and 2000, the catch declined 60-70% in the northwest and central Atlantic. It is estimated that about 220,000–1.2 million oceanic whitetip sharks were traded globally in 2000.

In response to these threats, Brazil, Colombia and the U.S. submitted an uplisting proposal in Bangkok for the species’ inclusion in Appendix II to regulate and control the international trade.

Another proposal, led by Brazil, Costa Rica, Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador, the EU and Mexico, suggests uplisting the scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead and smooth hammerhead to Appendix II. Like other shark species, hammerhead population numbers declined globally in recent years, yet at least 49,000 to 90,000 metric tons of hammerhead fins are still being traded annually — equivalent to between 1.3 and 2.7 million sharks.

In the history of CITES, very few fish species have been uplisted in the Appendix due to strong oppositions from Japan, Singapore, China and some Caribbean countries. Only the whale shark, basking shark and great white shark are currently listed in the CITES Appendix.

With around 400 species of shark worldwide, the regulation in the trade of five of them may seem like a small victory. However, it is a big step in the history of CITES and marine species conservation. If they are not overturned by the end of this week’s meeting (which sometimes happens), the uplisting proposals approved today will ensure that international trade of these shark species will be controlled and monitored by the 177 countries who are parties to CITES.

Figuring out how to effectively combat the illegal trade of these shark species — especially identifying the species from which fin products originate — is still a big question mark for both governmental enforcement officers and conservationists. However, today’s decision marks an essential first step to reduce unsustainable fishing of these vital species.

Li (Aster) Zhang is a consultant with CI-China. Read more posts about the CITES meeting currently taking place in Bangkok.


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