Sharks, like the infamous one from Jaws, conjure images of man-eating predators treacherously lurking in the ocean depths. However, as top-level predators, sharks play an important role in ocean ecosystems, helping to maintain balance among species and serving as indicators of ocean health. Fascinatingly, sharks are among the most diverse vertebrate groups on the planet, as their relatives evolved as early as 420 million years ago. Today, they include over 1,000 species of sharks, rays, and chimaeras. Species range from the dimunitive dwarf lanternshark, which at 8 inches long, ranks as the smallest shark, to the plankton-eating whale shark, the largest fish in the sea, growing over 60 feet long.
However, sharks and their relatives (which include skates, rays, and other cartilaginous fish) face a variety of threats, ranging from habitat loss and pollution to overfishing. Sharks are slow to reach sexual maturity, reproduce at a slow rate, and typically bear few young, so they are extremely vulnerable to overfishing. In fact, as many as a quarter of shark and shark-like fish species are at risk of extinction, according to a 2014 study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Human Exploitation of Sharks
Overfishing is the primary threat driving sharks toward extinction, as sharks and rays are caught for their meat, fins, teeth, oil and skin. In the past few decades, sharks have shifted from accidental bycatch in many open-ocean fisheries, such as those targeting swordfish, tuna, and mahi mahi, to a valuable commercial species. Demand for shark, skate, and ray meat has grown considerably in recent years, driven by factors that include a growing demand for new protein sources, as other fish that humans commonly consume are increasingly overfished, and anti-finning laws intended to encourage full utilization of landed sharks.
A primary driver of shark exploitation, however, is the lucrative market for shark fins—both legal and illegal. A high-priced delicacy in Asian cuisine, shark fins can sell for hundreds of dollars per kilo. The high prices propel a global shark fin industry, which now involves most of the fishing nations in the world. This industry also drives the wasteful, sometimes inhumane practice of shark finning, in which the fins of a shark are sliced off, and the shark is then discarded into the sea where, if still alive, it is certain to die.
NRDC’s Efforts to Protect Sharks at CITES
This month, we will be fighting for new protections for sharks, rays and their relatives under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international treaty that seeks to ensure that international trade does not threaten survival of species in the wild. Currently, 12 sharks, nine mobula rays, and all manta ray species have been included under Appendix II of the Convention, which seeks to control trade in these species, but does not ban it. Seven sawfish species are included under Appendix I, which bans international trade under most circumstances.
NRDC will advocate for inclusion of additional shark species under this treaty, including mako sharks, wedgefish, and guitarfish, all of which have suffered steep declines due to overfishing for both their meat and fins. Listing these species on CITES Appendix II is a critical step in global efforts to ensure that international trade in sharks and shark-like fish does not drive them to extinction.
We will also advocate to strengthen how CITES Parties implement protections for CITES-listed sharks. Specifically, we will urge Parties to:
- Document “Pre-Convention” Stockpiles to Thwart Illegal Trade: NRDC will support a proposal that Parties document stockpiles of CITES-listed shark fins that were fished or obtained before those shark species were protected by the Convention, so nations can ascertain that present-day shark fin exports are legal and in compliance with the treaty. This measure would make it more difficult for exporters to trade the fins of listed sharks illegally by claiming the sharks were caught before they were listed under the CITES treaty.
- Improve Monitoring of “In-Transit” Shark Fin Shipments: Shark fins often pass through intermediary countries as they make their way from the place they were fished to global markets. These “in-transit” shark fin shipments often contain the fins of CITES-listed and/or endangered sharks, but they are rarely inspected. Moreover, these protected sharks are often not properly declared or permitted, so failure to monitor them sufficiently enables trade that is at minimum unsustainable and oftentimes illegal. Although Parties to CITES have already generally agreed to monitor in-transit shipments of listed species to ensure the presence of valid permits, the lack of robust monitoring creates a gap that facilitates illegal trade. NRDC will support a proposal that urges exporters to declare shark fin shipments to Customs and Parties to increase monitoring and inspections of shark fin shipments as they transit intermediary ports on their way to global market.
Extending CITES protections to sharks will help safeguard additional shark species threatened by international trade, while strengthening how this international treaty enforces the protection of some of the most important and vulnerable predators that swim our oceans.