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Sharks Cross Fin-ish Line at CITES and A New Era Begins.

By Demian Chapman, Debra Abercrombie, and Carl Safina “Shark Week” came early in 2013, but it was not on TV. It occurred in early March in Bangkok, Thailand, at the world conference of the nearly 200 member nations to CITES—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. After years of work, vigorous debate on the...

By Demian Chapman, Debra Abercrombie, and Carl Safina

“Shark Week” came early in 2013, but it was not on TV. It occurred in early March in Bangkok, Thailand, at the world conference of the nearly 200 member nations to CITES—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

After years of work, vigorous debate on the floor and five separate votes by the hundreds of delegates, five key shark species were added to the CITES lists. The five species are the oceanic whitetip (Carcharhinus longimanus), porbeagle (Lamna nasus), and 3 hammerheads—scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini), great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran), and smooth hammerhead (Sphyrna zygaena).

The good news: This is the first time that sharks traded on a large commercial scale have made this list. They’re making lists and taking names; nations are required to track imports and exports. The international shark trade, which principally involves dried fins used in fin soup, will now be scrutinized. This is a high-water mark for CITES.

Dried shark fins on sale in China. Photo credit: Debra Abercrombie.

The bad news: It doesn’t actually stop fishing of these species. Shark-fishing nations received a sharp prod to ensure sustainability. But for most countries, achieving good shark management won’t be easy. So CITES listing is more of a beginning than an end.

The list that the sharks are going onto is called Appendix II of the Convention. A CITES Appendix II listing is not a ban on all international trade in these species. However, it will effectively be a trade ban for oceanic whitetips globally and scalloped hammerheads in the Atlantic because they are prohibited from the landings of most high-seas fisheries.

How it works: Appendix II listing requires the exporting country to issue a trade permit after a “no-detriment finding.” This is supposed to certify that the trade of the specimen (be it a fin or carcass) was taken in a sustainable manner. Importing countries, most of which are in Asia, will be responsible for ensuring that the proper permits accompany imported products. If exporting or importing countries fail to meet these responsibilities then they could face stiff trade sanctions. In this manner CITES has teeth, which explains why some of the primary importers of shark fins (China) and some industrial fishing nations (Japan) bitterly opposed the proposals to lists these species and fought them to the very end. These nations will now have to make serious investments in monitoring and regulating the trade in sharks and shark parts in order to avoid facing sanctions.

Nations have a year and a half to build capacity to implement these tracking procedures. Among other things, they will need to educate their border control and customs personnel on how to identify products originating from these species. For oceanic whitetips and hammerheads this will mainly involve dried fins, which is why we have spent the last 18 months developing simple field identification guides to help them ( The guide will soon even be available as a free downloadable application, so that people will be able to identify dried fins using their mobile phone or tablet. Genetic tests have been available for these species for several years, which will enable the field-based identifications made by customs personnel to be validated in the laboratory if needed for prosecution.

Dried shark fins are a common item at many markets in China. Photo credit: Debra Abercrombie

It will cost countries money to monitor the international trade in shark fins. But keep in mind that fins are a luxury product that fetch exorbitant prices. We saw one set of large great hammerhead fins on sale in Bangkok that was advertised for USD$1,100 per kilogram (about $500 per pound). Shark fin soup was selling for $365 a bowl at a nearby restaurant. There is money in this trade that could and should be redirected towards ensuring compliance with the new international law and promoting sustainability.

Having spent weeks showing CITES delegates how to identify dried shark fins and experiencing first-hand the frenetic world of international policy, we are in the midst of planning our third shark tagging expedition to The Bahamas. The Bahamas government decided sharks were worth more alive than dead nearly two decades ago when they suppressed the development of shark fishing in favor of far more valuable and sustainable shark-dive tourism. As a result, they still have oceanic whitetips and great hammerheads for us to tag. This serves as a reminder that the success of these CITES listings now rests in the hands of individual countries. Hopefully, countries exhibit the same foresight that The Bahamas did and make implementation of CITES a priority. Since the CITES victory was delivered by a coalition of Latin American, African, Middle Eastern and Pacific Island nations we are hopeful that their efforts to make these listings work are as vigorous as their efforts to pass them were.


Shark experts Dr. Demian Chapman and Debra Abercrombie are Blue Ocean Institute Fellows. Read more about their work to protect sharks here.

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Meet the Author

Carl Safina
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.