Shark spieces given protection by CITES: Will it Help?

Posted on March 14th 2013

FIVE shark species have been handed extra protection from the finning trade after a landmark ruling at a major international wildlife conservation summit.

The global trade in oceanic whitetip shark, porbeagle and three species of hammerheads - all hunted for their valuable fins despite being classified as threatened on the IUCN Red List  - has finally been toughened by members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).

Following a secret ballot of the 178 member states of CITES, the sharks and two species of manta ray were added to CITES Appendix II, which aims to ensure trade must be "controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival".

Fishermen will need official permits to land sharks and must also evidence that their catch has been harvested legally and sustainably. But while the CITES development has to be welcomed as a major step forward, whether it will have any impact on the shark slaughter remains to be seen.

Illegal finning remains the biggest threat to the success any official protection will offer to shark species. As one of the only shark species to school, hammerhead sharks are one species vulnerable to illegal fishing. Reports in 2005 that they were being taken in vast numbers from the waters surrounding the Galapagos Islands led to a ban on fin exports by the Ecuadorian Government. The result? New illegal trade routes were established, with fins secretly channelled via Peru and Columbia.

Columbia itself has seen its fair share of illegal fishing, particularly around its ecologically valuable marine sanctuaries and Section 6.4 of this document on the impact of illegal fishing on hammerhead shark populations makes sobering reading.

With huge sums of money to be made, it is perhaps inevitable sharks will also now become a target for organised crime gangs, if they are not already. The ivory trade is proof of that. Costa Rica has struggled to cope with the Taiwanese mafia suspected of being behind the shark fin trade. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey can testify to the lengths unscrupulous sorts there will go to protect the trade. It's interesting that Interpol were at the same CITES gathering to look at ways to "more effectively protect the environment from transnational organized crime".

INTERPOL’s Director of Specialized Crime and Analysis, Bernd Rossbach, said: “Transnational organized criminal networks are increasingly moving into wildlife crime which offers them the possibility of significant profits at comparatively low risk. National law enforcement agencies are the first line of defence against the illegal trade in wildlife, however they increasingly face sophisticated and highly-organized criminal gangs."

It is invariably in the waters surrounding developing nations that such sharks are now found - the Westernised world having plundered their own oceans on an industrial scale for long enough - and while there may be political will to protect sharks, funds are often not available to provide suitable enforcement operations.

William B. Magrath, Lead Natural Resource Economist, from the World Bank said  he was seeing a "growing need for additional resources for crime prevention and socially and developmentally sound law enforcement".

But unless more money for enforcement is forthcoming - difficult during such tough times when countries are simply trying to prop up their ailing economies - and directed in the right way then illegal fisherman will continue to enjoy swathes of un-policed oceans to plunder. Those laying long-lines - floated monofilament lines stretching anywhere up to 60-odd miles long with hooks every hundred feet or so - can decimate an area in a matter of days, with a minimal risk of being caught. Ecuador, for example, has just a handful of boats to patrol the marine parks around the scientifically and ecologically important Galapagos Islands where hammerheads are known to school. 

Sonja Fordham, President of Shark Advocates International.  “We urge all Parties to recognize the urgency of the shark and ray plight and to begin this work to ensure the sustainability of international trade in newly listed species, as a matter of priority.”

It is estimated more than 100 million sharks are killed each year, predominantly to feed the burgeoning market for shark fin soup, a delicacy in some Asian cultures; serving it at weddings is seen as way for the hosts to show respect to their guests.

However, the removal of the top apex predators from the marine eco-system threatens the very future of the oceans and man's place on the planet. Dead oceans equal a dead planet - and that's not being over-dramatic.

Sharks are crucial to marine ecosystems, maintaining a balance in populations of prey species and keeping the ocean healthy by removing ill or diseased animals, which in turn provides a natural controlling mechanism to manage the number of other fish species, everything kept in equilibrium.

However, because they are slow to mature, they are vulnerable to overfishing. If too many are removed from any one eco-system the whole marine food web could irreversibly crash. 

The Sea of Cortez, off the coast of Mexico, is a perfect example of what . Once described as the "aquarium of the world" by the father of modern marine exploration, Jacques Cousteau, the area has been decimated by over-fishing. Thresher sharks are considered extinct in the area, hammerheads have disappeared from the famous El Bajo while the populations of other species are now a shadow of what they used to be just 40 years ago. Reports last year suggested Great Whites were now being targeted by fishermen. Conservationists now face an uphill battle to try and reverse the damage.

While the CITES decision does not provide total security for sharks, conservation groups heralded the move as a major step forward in protecting shark numbers as part of an ongoing campaign to change public opinion.

“We are thrilled with this result and the groundswell of government commitment that made it happen,” said Amie Brautigam, Marine Policy Advisor for Wildlife Conservation Society.

“These hard-fought decisions to secure CITES regulations on international trade in sharks and rays are based on a solid foundation built over two decades, and surmount the long-standing opposition to listing shark species that are taken at a commercial scale.”

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