As the world’s largest conservation event convenes on September 1 in Honolulu, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) once again voiced its overwhelming support for increasing global protections for sharks and rays. Results of online voting revealed 95 percent support from IUCN members – which include scientists, government officials, and policy experts from around the globe – to add four shark and nine ray species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and to promote sustainable management of these vulnerable fish throughout their ranges.
IUCN’s action is an important one – not just for the sharks and rays covered by the motion, but also for the growing international effort to protect all shark species (which include sharks, rays, and chimaeras) around the globe. In 2014, the IUCN Shark Specialist Group conducted the first-ever global assessment of these cartilaginous fishes and found that nearly 25 percent of all assessed species were threatened with extinction, due primarily to overfishing.
The motion approved today by the IUCN supports inclusion of silky sharks, three species of thresher shark, and nine species of mobula ray under CITES Appendix II, proposals which will be debated and voted on separately by CITES member states at the Conference of the Parties in South Africa in September. Silky sharks and thresher sharks are caught unsustainably in fisheries around the globe, driven predominantly by the lucrative market for their fins. All of these species are among the most commonly traded shark species in the Hong Kong fin trade market. 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.
Mobula rays, which are similar to manta rays, are targeted for their gill plates, which are highly valued in Asian medicine as a health tonic. This trade, however, 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. Both ray fishermen and traders have reported that the rays are harder to catch, resulting in escalating prices for the diminishing supply of gill plates.
Listing silky sharks, thresher sharks, and mobula rays under CITES Appendix II will regulate international trade in their parts by requiring CITES member nations to ensure that any ongoing trade will not be detrimental to the species in the wild.
IUCN members also showed their overwhelming support for improving management of shark and ray species in the water, by urging all shark range states, market states, fishing states, and relevant regional fisheries management organizations to adopt precautionary, science-based management measures for sharks. This is a crucial step that goes beyond regulating international trade in an effort to conserve these species. The IUCN motion calls for measures to reduce unsustainable fishing pressure and guard against illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing of these species.
Sharks are highly evolved, highly specialized species that are slow to mature and reproduce, and thus particularly vulnerable to overfishing. They play a crucial role in the health of marine ecosystems, and their loss can trigger cascading effects on ocean health. IUCN’s action today shines a spotlight on the need to protect these important ocean predators, before it is too late.