Workers cut off fins from frozen carcasses of a sharks at a fish processing plant in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, November 15, 2011.
Workers cut off fins from frozen carcasses of a sharks at a fish processing plant in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, November 15, 2011.

Shark fin soup is a delicacy in Asia. But its popularity is helping to decimate shark populations. However, governments voted Monday (today) to protect five species of the predators. Preliminary approval came at a U.N. meeting on wildlife trade in Bangkok, Thailand.

Conservationists having been trying for years to protect sharks. Success finally came at this year’s meeting of CITES -- the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Governments also voted to protect two species of manta rays, as well. Final approval is expected Thursday, the last day of the meeting.

“We are quietly confident that that vote will now be the end of it. It was a very successful day as far as these shark species go and the manta rays with quite overwhelming votes on all of them, said,” said Glenn Sant, global marine program leader for TRAFFIC, an NGO concerned with biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.

Any opponents of protecting the sharks have one last chance to change minds at the meeting’s final plenary session.

Five species of sharks traded for their meat and f
Five species of sharks traded for their meat and fins have been listed in CITES. Credit: M Burgener / TRAFFIC

The five species that received at least two-thirds approval are the Oceanic Whitetip, Scalloped Hammerhead, Great Hammerhead, Smooth Hammerhead and Porbeagle. The manta rays include one species that lives near reefs and another that’s migratory.

Sant said that sharks are “particularly vulnerable to over exploitation.”

“They live many years. They have few young. They’re an important part of the ecosystem because they sit at the top of major predators in the ecosystem. So when you start removing too many of these top order predators you get an imbalance in the ecosystem. When we start removing too many of these individual sharks we’ve seen huge crashes in their populations. In Thailand there were discussions about some of these populations being reduced by over 90 percent.”

Conservationists say many times when sharks are caught, they have their fins cut off and are then thrown back into the sea to die. The manta rays are prized for their gills, which are also used as a food delicacy. Proposals to protect sharks were first introduced at a 1994 CITES meeting in the U.S.

Sant said, “I must say though it is a bit of a bittersweet win today. You know, it’s sad that we’ve had to get to the point where some of these shark populations have been reduced to such levels that we then only give attention to them.”

If final approval is given, the sharks and rays would be included under Appendix II of CITES. It is not a total ban. Appendix II does allow commercial trade. But countries involved in such trade must do two things. They have to prove that the sharks and rays were, one, legally caught and, two, sustainably caught.

“It means now that these shark populations will undergo much great scrutiny before they’re allowed to be traded internationally,” said Sant.

The CITES meeting also gave preliminary approval to giving greater protection to the Freshwater Sawfish.