Imperiled Sharks and Rays Win International Protections

Mobula breaching
Credit: Wikimedia

Representatives from over 180 nations voted on Monday to extend much-needed international protection to silky sharks, three species of thresher shark, and nine species of mobula, or “devil,” ray. Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)—the international treaty that regulates trade in endangered species and their parts—voted to protect these sharks and rays under CITES Appendix II. Under this listing, countries that wish to continue to export these species must find that such exports are not detrimental to the species’ survival.  

Winning these protections is a huge step forward for sharks and rays—and for the health of our oceans globally.

Sharks and rays are facing tremendous pressure worldwide: Nearly a quarter of sharks and rays are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN. This pressure is abundantly true for silky sharks, thresher sharks, and mobula rays, whose populations have plummeted over the past several years.

Silky shark populations have declined by almost 70 percent in nearly every region where they are found and for which data and assessments are available. Thresher sharks have suffered similar or greater declines in many portions of their range, with declines as high as 99 percent in the Mediterranean. Overfishing of both silky and thresher sharks is driven predominantly by the lucrative market for their fins. They are some of the most commonly traded species in the international shark fin trade.

Mobula rays, which are similar to manta rays, are targeted for their gill plates, which have only recently become highly valued as a health tonic in Asia. But this trade is driving significant overfishing of these extremely vulnerable fish: In some regions of the Pacific, local catch rates have dropped by as much as 96 to 99 percent over the past 10 to 15 years.

The bottom line is that the international demand for products from silky sharks, thresher sharks, and mobula rays is unsustainable—and it is driving these vulnerable species towards extinction.

Efforts to list sharks under CITES have been highly controversial, as many member nations argue that shark conservation should be regulated through individual nations’ fisheries management and through Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs), which manage fisheries in specific regions of the world. But while RFMOs directly regulate fishing, CITES seeks to address unsustainable pressures on especially vulnerable species, by requiring import and export permits, monitoring, and enforcement.

For this reason, CITES remains a strong and extremely important tool for conserving the world’s beleaguered sharks and rays, which are slow to mature, slow to reproduce, and typically have few pups at a time, making them exceptionally vulnerable to the pressures of overfishing.

By regulating the trade in silky sharks, thresher sharks, and mobula rays, CITES member nations took a bold and necessary step to address the global crisis that threatens the oceans’ top predators and, by association, the health of ocean ecosystems around the world.    

Thresher shark
Credit: HotPhotosFree
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