Blue shark, © Mark Conlin/NOAA

Progress Made for Sharks, but Reservations Remain

Alejandra Goyenechea, International Counsel
Kim Gros, International Conservation Intern

After the Conference of the Parties to CITES held its 16th meeting in Bangkok this March, it added five new shark and two manta species to Appendix II. After much debate, and a great deal of advocacy on our part, the Conference determined that oceanic whitetip, porbeagle, three species of hammerhead and two manta species will no longer be victim to an unlimited, unregulated shark fin trade. Any country that wishes to export these species will only be able to do so with a permit – one that can only be issued if the exportation will not be detrimental to the survival of that species in the wild.

A pile of shark fins lies on a dock in Tawian. (©Jake Li/Defenders)

A pile of shark fins lies on a dock in Tawian. (©Jake Li/Defenders)

For years, sharks have been over-harvested. Millions of sharks are caught each year through bycatch (when a species is caught unintentionally), and taken for their fins. Because the fins can be worth more than the whole shark, fishermen tend to bring the shark on board, slice the fin off and toss the shark back into the ocean where it endures a slow and painful death.

While the listing of these sharks under CITES is a huge step, several obstacles still remain. Unfortunately, any member nation of CITES has the option to make reservations to the listings. This means that any country that disagrees with the listing can decide not to comply with the new regulations, and do so without repercussions from the Convention. That country will then be considered a non-party member – a convenient status, where the nation can act as if, for particular listings, they are not a part of CITES. Overall, nations do decide to abide by listings, but the reservation system can allow countries to pick and choose which rules they want to follow. Fortunately, because a reservation can sometimes raise more conflict for a country, they are somewhat unusual. Several countries took advantage of this non-compliance opportunity after the recent shark listings, including Yemen, Guyana, Iceland, Denmark and Japan.

Sadly, we weren’t surprised to see Japan and Iceland on this list. Japan is a known catcher of porbeagle sharks. It ranks as the 7th biggest exporter of shark meat in the world, the 8th biggest shark fin exporter, and the 5th biggest exporter of other shark products. It is not the first time Iceland and Japan have been reluctant to follow international decisions. Although the International Whaling Commission issued a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, Japan continues to catch whales under the cover of scientific research. Iceland has long objected the moratorium, and officially resumed commercial whaling this past June to export whale meat to Japan where it is used as exotic pet food. Iceland seems to be showing a similar disdain for the rules when it comes to sharks. Between 2002 and 2011, they failed to report the number of porbeagle sharks they caught to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Both Iceland and Japan have repeatedly been defying international conservation regulations, and that’s what they’re continuing to do now. Because of their reservations, Japan and Iceland will not require permits in order to trade sharks, and they can continue to do so at unsustainable numbers, defeating the effort the rest of the world made by listing those shark species on the Appendix II.

Shark Guide CoverWhat those countries seem to forget is that they’ll be the ones whose economies are most impacted if sharks were to go extinct. No more sharks, no more predators to ensure the stable food chain of healthy oceans! Not only would shark products be off the table, but many species of fish could go too – ones that these nations also rely on for food and trade. It’s in everyone’s best interest to keep healthy populations of sharks fulfilling their role in the world’s oceans.

As we work to ensure that international trade does not push shark species past the tipping point, these reservations will truly set us back. Though the listing of these species was a victory in itself, we have an uphill battle to close the loopholes that still allow some nations to pursue unregulated, unsustainable harvesting of these animals.

One way we are helping is by developing shark identification guides for various regions, including South America (Atlantic and Pacific), and Mexico (Caribbean and Pacific). These cards help fisheries identify individual shark species, shark fins and the regulations that coincide with each species. Helping fishermen, customs officials and others know what species they are dealing with is a vital part of being able to enforce CITES listings.

We will continue to push for greater and more comprehensive protections for sharks, and ensure that these loopholes do not go unnoticed during the next CITES meeting. These archaic predators have been swimming our oceans for millions of years and many shark species are in danger of completely vanishing.