Image: Fred Buyle, Oceanic White Tip Shark - one of the newly protected species


This morning marked a bright new dawn for shark conservation, carrying with it the news that  five shark species, along with both species of manta ray and the freshwater sawfish have officially been approved for trade protection under CITES law. Shark and ray conservationists around the world have been waiting with baited breath for this confirmation of their efforts since talks began on March 3rd, and are hailing the results as nothing short of historic. Held this year in Bangkok, Thailand, CITES is the world’s biggest wildlife summit. Its purpose is to regulate cross-border trade in wild animals and plants in order to ensure sustainability, and it is attended by 178 delegates from governments all over the globe. 

Prior to this year’s results, just three shark species enjoyed protection under CITES law; the great white, the basking shark and the whale shark are all listed under Appendix 2, which stipulates that international trade in their parts can only be authorized with an export permit. This permit is intended to enable the policing of trade, therefore checking the species’ undocumented decline - although by definition animals listed under Appendix 2 are not recognised as being currently endangered. Instead, Appendix 2 lists species perceived as being threatened with becoming endangered if regulations are not put into place. Two years prior at CITES, proposals to include Oceanics, Hammerheads and Porbeagles on this Appendix were not ratified. However on March 11th, this time around, CITES announced that proposals for five shark species to be added to the Appendix had been approved. These species are the oceanic whitetip, the porbeagle, the scalloped hammerhead, the smooth hammerhead and the great hammerhead, and they were joined on the same day by their fellow elasmobranchs, the giant manta, the reef manta and the freshwater sawfish.

Image: Andy Brandy Casagrande, Great Hammerhead - one of the newly protected species

While the news of March 11th was certainly a cause for celebration, it was tempered with the knowledge that the approvals could technically be overturned at the plenary session held this morning. The proposals required a two-thirds majority vote to be approved in the first place, and had a third of delegates demanded the case to be reopened at the plenary session, the initial vote could have been reneged upon. In the case of the oceanic whitetip, which only just achieved the two-thirds majority with a vote of 92 to 42, fears that some countries would not stand by their decision were very real. In the end though, despite strong opposition from Japan against the proposal for the protection of the oceanic whitetip, and from China against the protection of all three hammerhead species, sharks won the day with every single one of their proposals being confirmed beyond a doubt. CITES members will now have 18 months to implement trade controls for these species, or face sanctions as a consequence.

The significance of this success cannot be emphasised enough. This, the sixteenth CITES conference, is the first time that delegates have voted to protect commercially valuable shark species. Because of the scalloped hammerhead’s schooling tendency, and because of the large size of the oceanic whitetip’s fin in proportion to its body, they are two of the species most targeted by the shark fin industry. This not only explains why the Asian nations were so strongly opposed to their protection, but also indicates that the drastic impact this industry is having on our oceans is finally being acknowledged on both a political and a legal level. Brazil, Senegal, Colombia and the U.S were among the countries supporting the proposals, while the head of the E.U’s delegation, Feargal O’Coigligh, is likely to have swung the votes in favour of the oceanic whitetips when he stated that money would be made available to poorer members to enable them to make the necessary changes to their fishing practices. The results of this most recent summit have almost doubled the number of shark species protected by CITES- tripled, if we include the mantas and the freshwater sawfish. This legislative landslide in favour of sharks may be the result of increased awareness about their plight, or perhaps the actions of delegates like Feargal O’Coigligh have mitigated Asian countries’ attempts to swing poorer nations’ votes with promises of financial and industrial support. In previous years, the lack of species-specific catch data also prevented legislation from being passed- with every year that passes, more research is available to substantiate sharks’ claim to protected status. 

Image: Deb Canabal, Oceanic White Tip and diver - shark tourism is extremely valuable to local economies

Whatever the reasons for these victories, they could not have come soon enough. It is estimated that 1 million oceanic whitetips are killed each year, with studies showing that their Pacific population suffered a 93% decline between 1995 and 2010. Scalloped hammerhead fins are widely believed to be the most valuable of all to the Asian shark fin trade, with 2 million of these sharks killed annually. Pelagic sharks (like the oceanic whitetip and all hammerhead species) suffer particularly from fishing on such an astronomical scale because their incredibly slow reproductive rate means their populations are unable to recover. For the porbeagle shark, this year’s result is particularly sweet, since it missed out on an Appendix 2 listing at the last CITES conference by one vote- despite the fact that its numbers reached such critical levels in 2010 that the EU was forced to ban fishing for it. Porbeagle populations dropped 85% in the north and west Atlantic between 1981 and 2005, predominantly as a result of finning at the hand of French and Spanish fishing fleets. Given these figures, it is obvious that the results of today’s plenary session are not only desperately needed, but also long overdue. 

Although these five species are among those most highly sought after by the shark fishing industry, it is estimated that a third of the 450 known shark species are threatened by overfishing. The problem is so drastic that it is estimated 90% of the world’s sharks have disappeared from our seas over the last 100 years. If this decline continues unchecked, the ocean’s apex predators could very possibly soon be extinct- a catastrophe that would have untold ramifications on the health and productivity of marine ecosystems worldwide. Today’s CITES results are without a doubt a positive step in the right direction.  In addition to legislation for a handful of species, it has brought the world’s attention to the issues facing sharks. An unprecedented amount of media and press around the globe has been dedicated to sharks, truly making them the new conservation darling. And rightfully so. Love them or hate them, sharks play a critical role in keeping our oceans healthy. 
Image: Jule Andersen, Massive shark catch in Japan 

However, there is so much more still to be done. Just eight shark species have any form of protection under CITES law, and even the protection of Appendix 2 is by no means complete. In reality, although export permits go some way towards limiting and regulating trade, hundreds of thousands of animals already on Appendix 2 are still killed each year. We’ve seen permits in the field forged, illegal species easily traded without restriction, and member nations turning a blind eye. Ultimately, it is up to the member nations, often with little funding and many social issues, to enforce the regulations. But without legislation, true enforcement cannot occur – and clearly many nations are beginning to rally behind sharks. So together, we must fight and lobby, educate and persuade, research and prove the necessity of it until all threatened shark species receive the protection they so desperately need.  And enforcement is properly supported and funded – collaborative enforcement with the member nations.
Image: Julie Andersen, CITES protected species being traded illegally in China

The fight goes on. But for right now, let’s all take a moment to revel in the fact that for once, against all odds, the governments of the world stood up and did the right thing for our sharks.  Let’s take a moment for all the conservationists and the scientists and the tireless campaigners whose hard work for years has paid off on this historic day. Take a moment to savour victory, and then lets gear up and get ready to win the next one. 

Written by: Jess Vyvyan-Robinson


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