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Protection of Sharks and Rays Threatens to Divide CITES

  • Ron Corben

A woman takes a photograph of a dried shark fin on display at a restaurant in Bangkok, host city of the CITES meeting, March 5, 2013.

A woman takes a photograph of a dried shark fin on display at a restaurant in Bangkok, host city of the CITES meeting, March 5, 2013.

Debate about greater protection for several species of sharks and rays endangered by overfishing threatens to divide the 170-member states of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Generally, proposals to protect the marine animals have strong backing, but are opposed by several Asian nations, especially Japan and China.

A new push to protect sharks and rays is expected to dominate debate Monday at the CITES meeting in Bangkok.

Conservationists say the issue is dividing the 178 CITES member nations. Several species are facing drastic declines due to overfishing and harvesting for traditional medicines in a largely unregulated market.

The president of U.S.-based conservation group Shark Advocates International, Sonja Fordham, says proposals to limit trade have the support of several key agencies, including the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

“The shark proposals are on the table. Those species are quite highly threatened and highly traded so they do make good candidates for CITES listing. All the relevant experts from IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), TRAFFIC, CITES Secretariat and the FAO group of experts have determined that the species meets the criteria for listing.”

Species proposed for protection include the oceanic white tip shark, the porbeagle shark and three species of Hammerhead sharks, as well as a freshwater sawfish, and the giant manta ray.

The United Nations says up to 2.7 million hammerhead sharks are harvested each year, while as many as 1.2 million oceanic white tip sharks are killed for their fins.

Running into opposition

A member of the conservationist group Humane Society International, Rebecca Regenry, says proposals to limit trade face resistance from major Asian countries.

“The threats to these species include trade in meat and gills and live animals for the aquarium trade. But these proposals are facing strong opponents especially from the governments of China and Japan.”

Other Asian nations, including meeting host Thailand, indicate they will back China’s opposition to CITES trade regulations.

Shark fins are worth as much as $120 a kilogram, but the rest of the shark is low-value meat and after their fins are removed the animal is discarded at sea, often still alive.

According to the U.S.-based PEW Charitable Trust, Hong Kong is the world’s largest shark-fin market, importing about 10-million kilograms in 2011 - about half the global trade.

Humane Society International’s Australia director, Alexia Wellbelove, says with sharks being taken at an unsustainable rate, it is important to act.

“Basically it does mean that we are in a position where we can get some regulation on that now. We can stop those populations from dropping too much further, controlling it before it is too late.”

A committee decision Monday to adopt shark-product regulations would still need to be endorsed later in the week by a meeting of all CITES members before going into effect.
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