Protecting Sharks through CITES

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has convened its 19th Conference of Parties (CoP19) over two weeks in Panama City, Panama. We asked Megan O’Toole, shark biodiversity manager with the Shark Conservation Fund, a Moore Charitable Foundation grantee, to outline what is at stake at CITES CoP19 for protecting sharks.

What is CITES and why is it important?

CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is the UN body responsible for ensuring that global trade in wildlife does not drive species to extinction. This is done by prohibiting trade in the most endangered species (Appendix I listings) or by limiting trade to sustainable levels (Appendix II listings).

Every three years, CITES has a Conference of the Parties (CoP), where governments put forward proposals to amend the list of species regulated under CITES, which are adopted if supported by a two-thirds majority of the governments present and eligible to vote.

While many species listed in CITES already have some form of national or regional management in place, this is often not the case for sharks and rays. When listed on CITES, many of these species are receiving management and oversight for the very first time — despite population declines of 80–99% for some. And this is why many governments are seeing CITES Appendix II listings as an increasingly appealing way to kickstart management for threatened species found in the shark fin trade.

What is happening now at CITES’ 19th Conference of the Parties (CoP19)?

CITES CoP19 runs November 14–25 in Panama City, Panama, where 54 species of the requiem shark family, 6 species of small hammerheads and 37 guitarfish species are all proposed for inclusion on Appendix II. Totaling around 100 species, this is the most ambitious and potentially transformative set of proposals governments have ever tabled at a CITES meeting. If adopted, the percentage of the global shark fin trade managed under CITES would jump from about 25% to near total regulation.

Panama, along with 40 other governments, has put forward the requiem shark listing as its flagship proposal at CoP19. In a year where governments around the world are making ambitious statements about the importance of marine biodiversity and conservation, it is very exciting to see words being turned into action and real management for sharks.

Why does SCF believe full regulation of the shark fin trade is needed?

Full regulation of the fin trade, if implemented properly, would effectively eliminate the largest driver of shark declines worldwide. Currently, the global trade in shark fins and meat is the key driver of shark population declines. Over one-third of shark species are threatened with extinction — but for species traded for their fins, this number jumps to two-thirds, showing the huge impact of this unsustainable trade.

Whether they are coastal or oceanic, shark species are in serious trouble. A recent study found that high seas sharks, almost of all which are found in the fin trade, suffered population losses over 70% in just 50 years. For coastal species, a global survey of coral reefs found that sharks were functionally extinct on 20% of the reefs.

In practice, for the most endangered species found in trade, continued exports would be prohibited allowing their populations to recover, while healthier shark populations could continue to be traded — but capped at sustainable levels to prevent further declines.

Full CITES management of the fin trade would create the impetus needed to secure strong shark conservation policies in countries around the world before populations are driven to extinction.

What are the biggest challenges to listing sharks with CITES?

While an increasing number of sharks and rays are being regulated by CITES in recent years, marine listings are still very controversial within the Convention. Before 2013, there were a limited number of shark species listed on the CITES Appendices, but no species that were commercially traded.

The lack of CITES management was partially due to a lack of global prioritization for shark conservation. However, a compounding factor is that the CITES listing criteria for aquatic species requires demonstrated larger population declines than terrestrial ones (30% to be listed in Appendix II for terrestrial vs. 70% for aquatic). This requirement is a result of advocacy from a small subset of governments, usually with large-scale industrial fishing fleets, seeking to prevent CITES action for marine species. These countries tend to prefer management for sharks to take place solely via fisheries management bodies, which are often less precautionary and rarely manage sharks, whether targeted or nontargeted catch.

But the good news is many governments increasingly recognize that sharks are not like other fish because they grow slow, mature late and produce few offspring and therefore need CITES management now. Despite these continued controversies, the last three CITES CoPs have adopted increasing numbers of shark and ray species into Appendix II. We hope that this trend continues. Given the rapid and global scale of shark population declines, CITES Appendix II listings of species found in trade is the bare minimum that should be in place to protect these vulnerable ocean predators from commercial overexploitation.

What would be the best outcome at CITES? And what would that do for sharks and ocean conservation in general?

Adoption of all three shark proposals at CITES CoP19 would change the way the world manages sharks. Every government participating in the shark fin trade likely would now be exporting CITES-listed species and would be required to implement strong management measures such as catch limits or prohibitions for the most endangered species to ensure any continued trade is both legal and sustainable.

Shark Conservation Fund has supported the implementation of previous CITES Appendix listings, providing funding for groups all over the world and partnering with governments to develop new policies to protect listed sharks, along with genetic and visual tools to identify CITES-listed species in trade. Should these listings be adopted over the next few weeks, we look forward to continuing to support NGOs and governments as they improve the management of sharks and rays worldwide.

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The Moore Charitable Foundation founded by Louis Bacon is a private non-profit foundation committed to land and water conservation. http://moorecharitable.org