Dozens of countries at the world’s largest wildlife conference voted for the first time to regulate the trade that kills millions of sharks every year to feed the appetite for shark fin soup. The proposal was led by Panama, the host of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which finished this week.
CITES is an international convention with over 180 members that can forbid or regulate the international trade of imperiled species or wildlife products. Over a thousand species of animals and plants have so far been blacklisted from trading, while another 37,000 are permitted but only when the trade is legal, sustainable, and traceable.
Back in 2002, CITES voted to add the first two species of sharks to the second list, adding another 46 since then. While their trade isn’t banned, the listing can still make a difference by increasing management actions to protect the animals from overexploitation, such as better trade measures and enforcement of fisheries.
In what conservationists have described as a landmark decision, parties at CITES voted to regulate the commercial trade in 54 shark species of the requiem family. This includes the bull, blue and tiger sharks, the most targeted for fin trade. Six small hammerhead sharks were also included in the list alongside 37 types of guitarfish.
The approved proposal now places almost all the shark species traded internationally for finds under CITES control. The proposal, supported by 40 countries, will require countries to ensure sustainability and legality before authorizing the export of these species. Most of the now-protected requiem sharks are threatened with extinction.
“This is a historic decision for the health of the oceans”, Heike Zidowitz, a shark and ray expert from the World Wildlife Fund in Germany, said in a media statement. “Sharks are an irreplaceable keystone species. They keep ecosystems intact thereby, ensuring healthy fish stocks on which millions of people depend for their nutrition and health.”
A very threatened animal
Many of the over 400 species of sharks are threatened because of the fishing industry, with their meat and fins in high demand in some parts of the world. Earlier this month, researchers reported that oceanic shark populations have continued to decline over the past 70 years.
Overall, one-third of shark species are threatened by extinction, according to the latest IUCN’s Red List. Despite being an apex predator for over 100 million years, sharks are now facing an untimely demise.
The new decision could prevent that. The decision is binding for all CITES members, which will have one year to adapt to the regulations on the fishing of these sharks. Countries will have to issue permits to certify that the sharks were legally captured and the level of fishing is sustainable. Those permits are checked at ports when fins and meat are imported and exported.
While welcoming the news, marine experts have warned the CITES listing could also have the opposite effect, increasing the black-market price for fins and meat and increasing illegal shark fishing. In 2021, Oceana found that fin imports from Ecuador to Peru (the main exporter of fins in the Americas) reached double pre-pandemic levels.
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