Guest Article #15

New International Regulations Could Stop Shark Finning

In the past, sharks have been better known for their deadly attacks on surfers or as the main delicacy in shark fin soup, but what is now making headlines in the science sections of newspapers around the world is that prolonged over-fishing of sharks has led to the lowest shark populations ever seen. A key international meeting in Thailand may finally put a stop to this.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), now in its final week of meetings in Bangkok, is set to take a landmark decision to regulate the trade of some of the key species used in shark fin soup - something it has failed to do twice in the past.

Already placing three key species onto the CITES regulatory appendices has been vetted at the committee level and a key vote on Thursday could finally see an agreement on an issue that has evaded consensus for several decades. An agreement on this subject could be the icing on the cake for what has been one of the most successful outings for CITES in many years. The CITES meeting has already seen a welcome focus on wildlife crime, with stepped up efforts to reverse the dramatic increase in the poaching of African Elephants and rhinos.

At first glance, the importance of sharks might not be as readily apparent as other species. Some even regard sharks as a public menace, but they play a key role in the ecosystem. As top predators, they are crucial in keeping the overall natural balance in the oceans and maintain other species' populations from getting completely out of control. Many local communities depend directly on shark species for their livelihoods through diving, shark-watching and ecotourism business activities.

Over 100 million sharks are caught every year. They are mostly fished for their prized fins which are used in shark fin soup. When the sharks are caught, their fins are sliced off, but their carcasses are then pitched back into the sea and completely wasted, and often they are still alive and are left to die a slow painful death. “Finning”, as it is called in the fishing industry, has become so popular that shark populations have plummeted to the point that over 30 per cent of the species are either near threatened or close to total extinction.

This is why it is crucial that some of the key threatened and near extinct species are put under protection by the CITES member countries.

Already many key countries are aware of the problem and are working within their territorial waters to try and solve the issue. The US, for example, has banned finning in its waters since 2000 and has measures in place to prohibit the importation of shark-products without sustainable catch certifications. Indonesia is working to set up shark sanctuaries to protect the species-rich marine areas in its waters known as the “Amazon of the Ocean”. The initiative adds to a growing list of sanctuaries that accounts for about 6.7 million km2 of ocean which is now off limits to shark fishing.

Last year the European Parliament closed loopholes in the European Union's shark finning legislation and now prohibits landing a shark's fins without the rest of its body. Also last year, in a major shift in policy, China proposed banned shark fin soup from being served at official banquets. It is a clear sign that the country prefers environmental sustainability over its taste buds. Already the policy could be in place for official functions when China's new President Xi Jinping takes office later this week.

Brazil, another G20 country, is leading the way and has reviewed its fishing policies on sharks. Brazil took the initiative in Bangkok earlier this week by proposing several of the shark and shark family species to be put on the CITES appendices.

But the only real way to protect sharks is a combination of regulating trade of endangered species with ensuring they are protected in the waters where they migrate. Sharks are highly migratory and do not respect national boundaries. This is why, in addition to CITES, countries also work with the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) to protect sharks when they are moving across national boundaries or are in high seas areas beyond national jurisdictions. The CMS has developed an agreement called the Sharks MOU that is a legally non-binding agreement that aims to promote shark conservation, sustainable harvesting practices and protect shark habitats. The agreement has over 25 signatory countries including the US and the parties are highly motivated to conserve sharks, and it could easily develop into a global agreement if key countries such as Brazil, China and India were to join.

The two UN conventions, CITES and CMS, have been working together for several years but the missing link has always been the trade of shark fins which is by far the largest threat to sharks. Now, with CITES set to regulate the trade of some of the most endangered shark species, populations may finally have a chance to recover and ensure that sharks become a rare delicacy for the dining table rather than a rare delicacy for the environment.

Bradnee Chambers, the Executive Secretary of the Convention on Migratory Species, wrote this op-ed.