Nations and Experts Consider CITES Safeguards for Sharks

December 10, 2012

In just three months, Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) will convene in Bangkok, Thailand to vote on a record number of proposals for controlling trade in a variety of threatened sharks and rays, including hammerheads and mantas. Like many governments and non-governmental groups around the world, Shark Advocates International is now focused on reviewing the proposals, considering their effects, and preparing for the Conference of the Parties (CoP).

International trade is a major driver for shark and ray fisheries around the world, and yet controls on this exploitation are woefully insufficient. Currently, only the great white, basking, and whale sharks, as well as the sawfishes, are listed under the CITES Appendices. The three shark species and the freshwater sawfish are included in Appendix II, which prompts permits to ensure international trade is legal and sustainable. All other species of sawfish are included in CITES Appendix I, which essentially amounts to a ban on international commercial trade.

Species proposed for CITES Appendix II include oceanic whitetip and porbeagle sharks, as well as three species of hammerheads and both manta rays. The freshwater sawfish has been proposed for transfer from Appendix II to Appendix I. All of these species except the manta rays have been proposed for CITES listing at least once before.

The distinctive fins of the oceanic whitetip shark are exported from around the world to Asia for use in traditional Chinese "shark fin soup." Colombia and the U.S. are leading the effort to secure CITES protections for this species, which has suffered steep declines in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.

Porbeagle sharks are prized for their meat, particularly in Europe, as well as their fins. The porbeagle proposal comes from the European Union (EU) and is cosponsored by Brazil, Comoros, and Egypt. The EU has closed its fisheries for porbeagle, but the species is still targeted in Canada and taken incidentally in some North Atlantic and Southern hemisphere pelagic fisheries.

Due largely to the exceptionally high value of their fins, hammerheads are among the most threatened of the wide-ranging sharks. The three largest species -- scalloped, great, and smooth hammerheads -- have been proposed for CITES listing by Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Croatia, and the European Union.

Manta rays are increasingly sought for their gill rakers (the structures that support their gills), which are used in Chinese medicine. Mantas are among the least productive of the rays, typically giving birth to only one pup every 2-3 years. Ecuador and Brazil have co-sponsored the proposal to add the manta genus to CITES Appendix II.

The freshwater sawfish, found in coastal areas as well as in rivers and bays, is among the world's most imperiled fish. In 2007, when all other sawfish species were listed under CITES Appendix I, Australia secured clearance to export live specimens of freshwater sawfish for the aquarium trade, under Appendix II. Australia has since determined that this trade may be detrimental to the population and is seeking to transfer the species to CITES Appendix I.

Under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM, the oceanic whitetip shark, porbeagle, both manta rays, and the smooth hammerhead are classified as globally Vulnerable. Scalloped and great hammerheads are categorized as Endangered while the freshwater sawfish (and all other sawfish) are Critically Endangered.

In the coming weeks, the IUCN, TRAFFIC, the CITES Secretariat, and a special panel convened by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) will release their findings as to whether or not the species proposed meet the respective criteria for CITES listing. Prior to the last CITES CoP in 2010, these expert entities all agreed that porbeagle, oceanic whitetip, and the three largest hammerhead species met those listing criteria, and yet the proposals failed to receive the two-thirds majority of votes needed for adoption.

Shark Advocates International (SAI) is working closely with Shark Trust, Humane Society International, Project AWARE, Wildlife Conservation Society, the German Elasmobranch Society to promote adoption of the shark and ray proposals. The coalition is producing informational materials, liaising with governments, and holding workshops to discuss the listing proposals and their effects.

SAI President, Sonja Fordham, has participated in every CITES CoP since 1994, when the first landmark international Resolution on sharks was adopted. She is excited to join her coalition colleagues in Thailand in March in coordinated efforts to secure much needed safeguards for these valuable, vulnerable, and highly traded animals.

Hammerhead sharks in Dubai fish market. Credit: Sonja Fordham
Hammerhead sharks in Dubai fish market. Credit: Sonja Fordham