Countries Strengthen Commitments to Protect Sharks Worldwide

Countries attending the World Wildlife Conference—also known as the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)—once again expressed their concern for global shark populations this week and expanded their commitment to controlling international trade in sharks so that it doesn’t decimate these vulnerable predators in the wild.

Sharks have been a species of increasing focus for Parties to CITES in recent years, particularly since several species of commercially fished sharks and rays were added to the CITES appendices in 2013 and 2016. Many of these species are common in the global shark fin trade or, in the case of some rays, prized for their meat or gills, which have recently gained popularity as a tonic in some Asian countries. As a result, many of these species, which were once considered bycatch in commercial fisheries, are now actively targeted. So how CITES regulates international trade in these valuable species is a subject of hot debate.

On August 28 in Geneva, Parties to CITES voted to list three groups of shark species—short fin mako and long fin mako sharks, guitarfish, and wedgefish—under Appendix II of the treaty. All three of these species groups have faced steep declines due to overfishing for both their meat and fins. And all of them are under intense pressures from international trade. For example, mako shark is a high-quality, expensive meat in many countries around the world, including Europe and the U.S., and mako fins are among the most commonly found fins in the global fin trade. Guitarfish and wedgefish are also prized for their high-value fins.

Moreover, with a quarter of the world’s sharks, rays, and chimaeras considered at risk of extinction, listing sharks and their relatives under CITES is crucial to leveraging international action to protect these important creatures. CITES Appendix II requires countries to certify that listed species that are traded internationally are legally acquired, and also that the volume of trade is not detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild. For sharks, the new CITES listings mean more focus on ensuring that sharks are legally and sustainably fished, and that meat, fins, and other shark products in international trade are accompanied by permits to verify legal acquisition and “non-detriment.”

Parties to CITES also agreed to strengthen the way listed sharks are protected under the treaty by adopting a formal decision that calls on Parties to document stockpiles of shark fins obtained prior to the species’ being listed on CITES Appendix II and to inspect shark fin shipments as they transit intermediary countries en route to global markets. Both of these measures seek to root out illegal fins in trade, which continues to drive the exploitation of sharks across the world’s oceans.

Documenting “pre-Convention” shark fin stockpiles helps prevent traders from falsely claiming that recently caught sharks were fished before they were protected under CITES—an unfortunately common practice that amounts to “fin laundering” and enables bad actors to sell the fins of protected sharks without restriction on the international market.

Increasing inspections of “in-transit” shark fin shipments is another key strategy for combating illegal trade in shark fins. In-transit shipments are typically poorly monitored by intermediary countries, but they often contain fins from CITES-listed sharks, which are not properly declared or permitted. The proposal to improve monitoring of in-transit shipments would engage Customs and wildlife agencies in intermediary nations, like the U.S., to ensure that the shark fins passing through their borders are legal, sustainable, and properly permitted—and help combat the all-too-often illegal trade that supplies the global shark fin market.

NRDC’s Oceans and Wildlife Trade teams played a key role in securing these protections for sharks—and we will be working to ensure that these listings and decisions are strongly implemented to ensure the long-term survival of these important ocean predators.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Murdock

Director, Pacific Oceans Initiative, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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