Newsworthy and celebrated, it can seem like listing a threatened animal under an international environmental convention will provide instant management that can bring animals back from the brink of extinction. While it is a necessary and crucial step, it is often just the beginning in helping to reduce threats and ensure long-term survival for threatened and endangered species.
This is especially true for sharks and rays, with many species at risk of extinction due to overfishing for their fins and to a lesser extent, meat for sale in international markets. Currently, shark and ray species listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) represent about 25% of the global shark fin trade. These listings recognize that each of these species has suffered population declines upwards of 70% and any continued international trade must be both legal and sustainable. Long overdue, the first listing of commonly traded sharks in 2013 sparked a cascade of new management measures worldwide—including prohibitions of catch, trade bans, export quotas and proactive enforcement of trade in CITES-listed sharks—with many governments enacting management of shark species for the first time.
Seven years later, we are also seeing that the CITES listings have now made preventing illegal shark trade a global priority. In May of 2020, Hong Kong SAR seized more than 26 tonnes of illegally shipped fins of CITES-listed shark species exported from Ecuador. Only weeks later, and in response to the discovery of these illegal shipments, Ecuador announced its intention to prohibit the export and possibly even the catch of five species of sharks — four of them Endangered and CITES-listed, to better enforce the listings and crack down on illegal fishing and trade.
Hong Kong SAR’s ability to quickly identify CITES-listed species and Ecuador’s rapid regulatory response to these seizures are a direct result of years of hard work on the part of governments, IGOs and NGOs worldwide to prioritize enforcement of shark and ray listings, leading to these species becoming a cornerstone of the CITES Convention.
However, there is still more work to be done. Over 50% of shark and ray species are threatened or near threatened with extinction, and many are still without fisheries measures or full protections. Just last August at the 18th CITES Conference of the Parties, an additional 18 endangered shark and ray species were found to be in need of trade limits that CITES provides.
IFAW remains committed to support governments to enforce these listings, raise the priority of shark and ray management, and create protections for the world’s most endangered sharks and rays.
Over the next two years, our focus will be in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean to assist as needed to effectively implement CITES shark listings, old and new. This project will provide enforcement training, visual and genetic identification training of CITES-listed shark species, and also support the development of sustainable export quotas. We'll also focus on the creation of additional tools and identification of the most threatened shark species in need of immediate protections based on regional and individual countries’ specific needs.
While not as high profile as a CITES Conference, the day-to-day enforcement of listings and updating of fisheries regulations is what makes CITES one of the most effective international conservation conventions today. We hope to bolster these efforts while highlighting the great work being done by governments in these regions to prevent shark species from going extinct.
This work is supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Shark Conservation Fund.
-Megan O'Toole, Senior Program Manager, International Policy, Programs