GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - Conservationists are hailing what they call an historic agreement to give greater protection to sharks threatened by illegal trading practices. The agreement, which takes effect on Sunday, puts several shark and manta ray species under the protection of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.
This theme music from Jaws, the 1975 Hollywood thriller about a killer shark, has terrified generations of moviegoers. CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon thinks the bad rap sharks are getting is unfair.
“The reality is the number of shark attacks are extremely low. The risk is extremely low, but it is a very hard profile. … Scientifically, you know, you need sharks. You need the top-end predators. They are a critical part of the eco-system. And, the fact that something poses a risk to human beings is no reason to be rid of it,” he said.
Sharks play an important role in maintaining a healthy ocean by eating other fish. While they are preying on smaller fish, conservationists say human sharks are preying on these undersea animals for their fins, meat, leather, liver oil and cartilage.
CITES says the demand for shark fins in Asia is the greatest driver of overfishing and population declines. Shark’s-fin soup is a delicacy served at important events, such as weddings and banquets in Asia.
On the other end of the eating spectrum, it notes fish and chips meals are made from shark meat in Europe. The gill plates of manta rays are highly valued as a health tonic in southern China. Conservation groups agree that, instead of being beneficial, gill plates may be harmful to human health because they contain arsenic, cadmium, and other lethal metals.
Head of CITES Scientific Services David Morgan says profits from the unregulated trade of these products are huge. Unfortunately, he tells VOA this is leading to overfishing and an 80 percent decline in several species.
“That is a substantial decline. It has resulted in local extinctions. One of the species, the hammerhead shark, the scalloped hammerhead shark has become virtually extinct in the Mediterranean Sea. The population decline there is estimated at 99.9 percent. So it has resulted in local extinctions in some places. What can we do to recover them? Well, they need time and space to recover. ... We need to reduce the fishing pressure on these species,” he said.
The new CITES agreement provides stronger protection for five shark species and all manta ray species whose survival is under threat. The agreement does not ban international trade, but it regulates the trade to make sure these endangered species are being harvested sustainably and legally.