Accessibility links

Shark Species Head for Protected List

  • Gabrielle Paluch

A woman takes a photograph of a dried shark fin on display at a restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand, Mar. 5, 2013.

A woman takes a photograph of a dried shark fin on display at a restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand, Mar. 5, 2013.

Officials meeting in Bangkok to discuss wildlife trade have voted to put five shark species on a protected list that restricts trade, over the objections of Japan and China. Opposition to the proposal could affect the availability of shark fin soup, which remains popular with many in Asia.

This week’s vote to place five shark species on Appendix II of CITES, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species, would restrict the international trade of threatened shark species. While the measure stops short of an outright ban on fishing, it requires the sharks to be legally and sustainably caught.

The proposal protects three species of hammerhead sharks as well as the Oceanic Whitetip and Porbeagle. It was passed by a narrow margin, and could still be overturned, should countries in opposition to the proposal, such as China, Japan, and Mozambique, decide to revisit the issue.

Chinese and Japanese representatives raised concerns that the proposed restrictions may not be enforceable, because it is too difficult to recognize the restricted species by only using the fins. Other representatives said local fisheries and economies depend on the income generated from the international shark trade.

However, Ralf Sontag, the director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, says this week’s vote indicates the debate over those issues has been settled.

"Everybody thinks it was shark day. It was a historic vote, a historic result. All of those proposals got their two-thirds majority. Japan does not want to have any marine species listed at CITES. They brought some funny arguments that it's not possible to distinguish between these shark species. So I think those arguments from Japan are very weak," said Sontag.

Shark fin soup is an expensive delicacy in China and some other parts of Asia, where it is associated with prosperity and good luck. Weddings and official banquets traditionally feature the dish.

But environmentalists say supplying fins to millions of diners has decimated shark populations. Fishermen typically cut off the fins and throw sharks back into the ocean, where they bleed out and die.

While the ban on the international trade of some shark species could raise prices on fin soup, the Humane Society's Iris Ho disagrees, saying the dish is already declining in popularity.

"Even in Beijing, this past Chinese New Year, the shark fin consumption has gone down by 40 percent. When you have a smaller market you know I'm not sure the price will go up, because the market has gotten smaller," said Ho.

While some of the decrease has been attributed to the Chinese government’s recent push to eliminate lavish banquets, growing numbers of hotels and restaurants in Asia are removing the dish from menus due to its controversy.