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March 12, 2013

Sharks Receive Protection Under CITES

Shark trade regulation passes key vote during CITES meeting in Bangkok, Thailand.

Sharks and manta rays received protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) on Monday, March 11 at an international meeting in Bangkok, Thailand. CITES member nations, referred to as "Parties," voted to increase protections for five species of sharks as well as two species of manta rays. Leading up to and during this meeting, the United States worked with a coalition of countries committed to gaining support for these proposals, including Brazil, Colombia, the European Union, Costa Rica, Honduras, Ecuador, Mexico, Comoros, and Egypt, among others.

"We are extremely pleased that CITES member nations have given greater protections to these commercially exploited marine species," said Bryan Arroyo, head of the U.S. delegation to the treaty's 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties in Bangkok. "Through the cooperation of the global community, we can begin addressing the threats posed by unsustainable global trade in shark fins and other parts and products of shark and ray species."

A proposal submitted by Colombia, and co-sponsored by the United States and Brazil, to list oceanic whitetip sharks in Appendix II was adopted in a secret ballot vote with 92 in support, 42 opposed and 8 abstentions. The United States jointly submitted this proposal due to concerns that over-exploitation for the international fin trade is negatively impacting the population status of this shark species.

In addition to oceanic whitetip sharks, proposals to increase protection for hammerhead sharks (three species including scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead, and smooth hammerhead), porbeagle sharks, and manta rays were adopted by the Parties. The United States strongly supported these marine species proposals.

"Sharks and manta rays are extremely important to the ocean ecosystems," said Sam Rauch, of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "The global protection that CITES offers these incredible species will complement existing international shark protection measures by ensuring their trade is sustainable and does not threaten their survival. We are thrilled these important shark and ray proposals were adopted and applaud the leadership of the many countries that helped us get there."

Recent votes place the five shark species and all manta rays in Appendix II of CITES--an action that means increased protection, but still allows legal and sustainable trade. Listing commercially-exploited marine species, especially those taken on the high sea, in the CITES Appendices has been a highly polarized and much debated issue at recent conferences of the Parties, in part because the provisions for marine species taken on the high seas were open to interpretation. Earlier in this meeting, the Parties passed a resolution clarifying CITES implementation for marine species taken on the high seas, termed "Introduction from the Sea." The Introduction from the Sea provisions provide CITES Parties with a clear, comprehensive framework for implementation of listings of species taken on the high seas.

The shark protections made on March 11 could be reconsidered later this week, when the Parties hold a decision-making session to finalize recommendations made throughout the week. "Populations of these species are in severe decline, primarily due to commercial exploitation. The science supports these listings," said Arroyo. "We are confident that the CITES Parties will uphold these decisions."

Shark Species Background

Sharks are over-harvested in many parts of the world, primarily for their fins. Most shark fins are exported to Asia, where they are a main ingredient in shark fin soup, which is considered a delicacy in many Asian countries. Due to their low productivity and high economic value, populations of these shark species have suffered severe declines. Porbeagle sharks also face pressures due to demand for their meat, while manta rays are over-harvested for their gill plates. While some regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) have adopted measures to manage sharks, these regional measures alone cannot ensure the international trade of this species is globally sustainable. Not all range countries are members of RFMOs and many marine species that are traded internationally swim long distances, often crossing national boundaries. For these species, conservation can only be achieved by working collaboratively with other nations.