Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sharks Gain More Protection Under CITES

by Nick Cunningham

An estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year, and for a species that lives long and reproduces slowly, that alarming kill rate threatens their very survival. Much of the slaughter is due to demand, particularly in China, for their fins. Shark fins are considered a delicacy in China and are served in expensive soups. Strange as it sounds, shark fins actually have almost no taste, but serving shark fin soup is apparently highbrow. Much like the slaughter of African elephants for ivory, which is just a status symbol, middle and upper class Chinese are putting many species of sharks on the path to extinction.

Many sharks are caught, their fins cut off, and thrown back into the ocean. The video below by the Humane Society provides a quick overview for those who can stomach it (graphic content).

Grisly stuff. The decimation of sharks has ripple effects down the food chain. Sharks, as a top predator, play a pivotal role in maintaining a delicate balance across interwoven ecosystems. In fact, scientists consider sharks to be a "keystone" species - critical players that if removed, cause ecological functions to break down. For example, according to Shark Savers, sharks prey on sick and weak fish, which reduces the risk of disease among those species of fish. They also prevent other fish from overgrazing marine habitats, maintaining healthy seabeds. As shark populations decline, ecosystems and species that are seemingly unrelated to sharks will be affected in negative ways.  

Yet, this month, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) met in Bangkok, and passed some significant protections for five species of sharks. The porbeagle shark, oceanic whitetip shark, and three types of hammerheads were added to CITES Appendix II, an intermediate step of protection that limits the trade of endangered species. The measure was pushed by several Latin American nations (Brazil in particular), the United States, and the European Union and fiercely opposed by Japan and China.

Under Appendix II, countries that want to export listed species must issue a "no-detriment finding," indicating the shark in question was taken sustainably. Countries that import these species must ensure the proper permits accompany the trade. Failure to comply for either party can result in sanctions.

Hammerhead Sharks. Photo: Smithsonian
Many international meetings often predictably end with little to show for them, but the recent CITES meeting is a modest step forward. (However, they did stop short of putting these sharks on Appendix I, which would put a blanket ban on their trade, except for scientific purposes).

This has the potential to significantly limit the trade of these species of sharks. Yet, putting sharks on Appendix II does not automatically mean sharks will actually be protected. Many countries lack the ability, or the will, to enforce conservation laws. Key officials are often complicit in illegal wildlife trade. So, the true impact of listing sharks under CITES remains to be seen.

In the United States, shark finning was already illegal under the Shark Finning Prohibition Act, signed into law in 2000. But, the law left a serious loophole - shark finning was not allowed in U.S. waters by U.S. boats, but the trade of shark fins was allowed. In 2011, President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act that ended this loophole, only allowing the trade of shark fins that are attached to bodies. States like California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington have gone further by passing a total ban on the trade of fins. Now, New York is the epicenter of the U.S. shark fin trade, due to the ban on the west coast. But, momentum in the state legislature to ban shark fin trade is gaining steam.

While the overall trend is gloomy - populations are declining as millions of sharks continue to be killed each year - the recent success at CITES should be celebrated. Still, with the appetite for shark fins coming almost entirely from China, more work is needed to reduce demand there.

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