Countries at the world’s largest wildlife summit have voted for the first time to regulate the trade that kills millions of sharks each year to satisfy massive hunger for shark fin soup.
In what marine conservationists have hailed as a groundbreaking decision, parties to the 186-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna, or CITES, voted to restrict or regulate commercial trade in 54 shark species of the requiem family. including tiger, bull and blue sharks which are most commonly targeted for the fin trade. Six small hammerhead shark species were also listed for protection, along with 37 guitarfish species, which are shark-like rays.
Collectively, the three proposals would place nearly all shark species traded internationally for their fins under CITES surveillance and control, up from just 25% before CITES CoP19.
The proposal from Panama, the host country, and supported by 40 others, including EU countries and the UK, will protect sharks, which make up two-thirds of the species targeted by the fin market. It will require countries to ensure legality and sustainability before allowing the export of these species.
Most requiem sharks are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
“Now, finally, the highly unsustainable shark fin trade will be fully regulated,” said Luke Warwick, director of shark and ray conservation for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“These two families make up more than half of the shark fins traded annually in a half-billion dollar trade,” Warwick said. The new protection would give them a chance to recover and “will forever change the way the world’s ocean predators are managed and protected,” he added.
Studies show that 37% of shark and ray species are threatened with extinction and that the number of ocean sharks or pelagic sharks has declined by more than 70% in just 50 years. Scientists say these declines are a direct result of overfishing and unregulated international trade, due to shortfalls in national and international management.
The proposal was not passed without opposition. Japan tabled an amendment to remove the 35 non- or critically endangered shark species from the original proposal, while Peru requested the removal of the blue shark. Both amendments fell short of the necessary votes, and after two hours of debate, the original proposal was passed unchanged. All CITES decisions are binding on States Parties who have one year to amend their rules for fishing these sharks.
“Requiem sharks are among the most trafficked but least protected species,” said Diego Jiménez, director of conservation policy at the nonprofit organization SeaLegacy. Nearly 70% of the requiem shark family is already endangered.
The family-level list will help customs and border control officials with enforcement, Jiménez said, as nearly every shipment of shark fins requires the appropriate CITES permit or certificate. It could be a game changer, shifting the percentage of fin trade managed by CITES from 25% to 70%, he said.
But critics, including marine biologists, say the CITES listing could have the opposite effect, driving up the hidden market price for fins and meat and increasing illegal shark fishing.
According to research by Oceana Peru, by 2021, fin imports from Ecuador to Peru – the largest exporter of fins in the Americas – will reach double their pre-pandemic levels. Of the 300 tons of dried fins that came from Ecuador, more than 160 tons came from a CITES-listed species, the endangered pelagic thresher shark, which is targeted for its exceptionally long fins.
“These levels of trade are happening despite the fact that this is a species whose international trade is regulated by CITES,” said Alicia Kuroiwa, director of habitats and endangered species at Oceana Peru.
The matter, along with other irregularities in the export of shark fins from Peru to Hong Kong, has been brought to the attention of the CITES Permanent Commission for “further investigation and recommendations to the two countries,” Kuroiwa said.
A violation of CITES regulations could be punished with the “temporary closure of trade in all CITES-listed species, which would be very serious for Peru,” she added.