Countries at the world’s biggest wildlife summit have voted for the first time to regulate the trade that kills millions of sharks every year to feed the vast appetite for shark fin soup.
In what marine conservationists have hailed as a landmark decision, parties at the 186-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites, voted to limit or regulate the commercial trade in 54 shark species of the requiem family, including tiger, bull and blue sharks which are the most targeted for the fin trade. Six small hammerhead shark species were also listed for protection along with 37 types of guitarfish, which are shark-like rays.
Collectively, the three proposals would place nearly all shark species traded internationally for their fins under CITES oversight and controls, up from only 25% prior to the CITES CoP19.
The proposal put forward by Panama, the host country, and backed by 40 others including EU countries and the UK, will offer protection to the sharks which make up two-thirds of the species targeted by the fin market. It will require countries to ensure legality and sustainability prior to authorising exports of these species.
Most requiem sharks are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.
“Now, finally, the deeply unsustainable shark fin trade will be fully regulated,” said Luke Warwick, director of shark and ray conservation for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“These two families constitute well over half of the shark fins traded annually in a half-billion dollar trade,” Warwick said. The new protections would give them a chance to recover and “will forever change how the world’s ocean predators are managed and protected,” he added.
Studies indicate 37% of shark and ray species face extinction and ocean-going, or pelagic, sharks have declined by more than 70% in just 50 years. Scientists say these declines are a direct result of overfishing and unregulated international trade, stemming from a shortfall in national and international management.
The proposal was not passed unopposed. Japan tabled an amendment to remove the 35 shark species which were not endangered or critically endangered from the original proposal, while Peru requested the removal of the blue shark. Both amendments failed to achieve the necessary votes and after two hours of debate the initial proposal was adopted without any changes. All Cites decisions are binding for party states which will have one year to adapt their regulations on the fishing of these sharks.
“Requiem sharks are some of the most traded but least protected species,” said Diego Jiménez, director of conservation policy at the SeaLegacy non-profit. Nearly 70% of the requiem shark family is already endangered.
The family-level listing will assist customs and border control officials with enforcement, said Jiménez, as almost every shipment of shark fins would require the correct Cites permit or certificate. It could be a gamechanger, shifting the percentage of the fin trade managed by Cites from 25% to 70%, he said.
But critics, including marine biologists, say the Cites listing could have the opposite effect, driving up the hidden market price for fins and meat and increasing illegal shark fishing.
In 2021, fin imports from Ecuador to Peru – the leading exporter of fins in the Americas – reached double pre-pandemic levels, according to research by Oceana Peru. Of the 300 tonnes of dried fins that came from Ecuador, more than 160 tonnes came from a Cites-listed species, the endangered pelagic thresher shark, which is targeted for its exceptionally long fins.
“These levels of trade are occurring despite the fact that this is a species whose international trade is regulated by Cites,” said Alicia Kuroiwa, director of habitats and endangered species at Oceana Peru.
This case, along with other irregularities in shark fin exports from Peru to Hong Kong, has been brought to the attention of the Cites standing committee for “further investigation and recommendations to the two countries”, said Kuroiwa.
A breach of Cites regulations could be punished with the “temporary closure of the trade in all Cites-listed species which would be very serious for Peru”, she added.