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Global Shark Conservation: Good News for Some Species, Alarming Trends for Others

Reversing overfishing, climate change, and population growth can seem insurmountable. Safina Center Fellows strive to amplify the global conservation discussion and, in targeted ways and places, they make a difference. Their drive to redefine the future of our planet starts with the belief that progress is possible. —Carl Safina In the following interview, shark experts...

Reversing overfishing, climate change, and population growth can seem insurmountable. Safina Center Fellows strive to amplify the global conservation discussion and, in targeted ways and places, they make a difference. Their drive to redefine the future of our planet starts with the belief that progress is possible. —Carl Safina

In the following interview, shark experts and Safina Center Fellows, Debra Abercrombie and Demian Chapman, discuss hopeful advances as well as alarming trends in shark conservation worldwide. And we get a look at their innovative shark fin identification training that helps customs and wildlife officials enforce new regulations on the global shark fin trade.

shark fins
Shark fins used during identification workshops. Photo by Stan Shea.

You two have been leading Shark Fin Identification Workshops all over the world in the past three years. How does your work help protect sharks?

Debra: Sharks and their relatives, the rays, are threatened in a number of ways, but the demand for fin soup in Asia drives the chief threat to many species—overexploitation. At the 2010 meeting of CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), proposals to regulate international trade of oceanic whitetip, porbeagle and three large hammerhead shark species were rejected based on an assumption. At that time, most people thought it was impossible to determine which shark species a fin belonged to without offsite genetic testing. Another assumption was that this genetic testing was simply not feasible due to time and cost constraints.

Well, in 2010 Demian and I had both been working in shark conservation for over 15 years. We had been developing genetic techniques to identify shark species and their products in the global fin trade. Our work had given us the rare opportunity to inspect thousands of fins firsthand. We knew that the fins for these five shark species were highly distinctive—in other words, easy to identify visually. This prompted us to develop our shark fin ID project.

We knew a CITES Appendix II listing for these five species would be a game changer for shark conservation because all these species were traded in alarming numbers internationally. We quickly developed shark fin ID materials and started leading workshops hosted by governments and environmental groups, both before and during the next CITES meeting in March 2013. We trained people working on the front lines—wildlife inspectors, customs agents and fisheries personnel—on how to identify these shark fins. With our training at these workshops, we were able to prove that the fins could definitely be identified visually, at least for these specific species, and that a more targeted approach to genetic testing was possible.

shark fin id workshop
Debra Abercrombie (standing) prepares for a training session with wildlife and customs officials. Photo by Stan Shea.

When the proposals to include these shark species in Appendix II were put forth at the 2013 CITES meeting, they were finally accepted. This meant that for the first time ever, countries wishing to import or export/re-export listed shark species have to strictly regulate their international trade through monitoring and compliance. They also have to provide permits or certificates proving that the trade is not detrimental to the species’ survival.

Of course, for these listings to be implemented effectively, we’re continuing shark fin ID demonstrations at workshops worldwide, and we’re developing additional tools that can be used throughout the shark fin supply chain. Our goal is to make identifying fins from any CITES-listed shark species as clear and easy as possible—both now and for future listings.

In the past year, what changes have you seen in shark protections that you find especially encouraging?

Demian: The clearest signal of change is that shark conservation is now much higher on government priority lists of items that need action. This is evident all over the world, from nations that fish sharks to the major trade hubs in Asia. In particular, we are both still amazed that the authorities in Hong Kong are actively prosecuting traders that illegally import shark fins of protected species, considering how long the fin trade has gone completely unregulated there.

Debra: It’s extremely encouraging that governments from countries all over the world are committing to effective implementation of the shark and ray CITES listings. There is unprecedented support now from CITES, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), governments and non-governmental groups.

If someone had told us five years ago that we would be training wildlife inspectors and customs agents in Hong Kong how to identify shark fins, we wouldn’t have believed them!

The global effort to provide training for fisheries authorities on how to enforce international, regional and national regulations, plus the training in how to identify shark fins (visually and using genetic techniques) is unlike anything we’ve seen during the 40 plus years CITES has been in existence. Also, 21 species of sharks and rays were listed on appendices under the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) in November 2014.

Demian and I have been working to continue this momentum by accepting as many invitations from governments as possible, providing our shark fin ID trainings worldwide. In fact, we have been working with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) in Hong Kong since the spring of 2014. Hong Kong, in spite of their original opposition to including these species on CITES’ Appendix II, has really taken the listings seriously. They have confiscated several shipments containing shark fins from listed species, and have been doing a really great job with monitoring and enforcement.

If someone had told us five years ago that we would be training wildlife inspectors and customs agents in Hong Kong how to identify shark fins, we wouldn’t have believed them!

hong kong shark fins
Typical retail shop in the Sheung Wan district of Hong Kong selling dried seafood products (shark fins, abalone, sea cucumber, seahorses, etc.) Huge curios on display are fins from basking and whale sharks, a sawfish rostrum and shark jaws. Photo by Stan Shea.

You both are on the front lines of shark conservation. Can you give us an update?

Debra: I think it’s still too early in the process to understand what effects the CITES listings are having on a global scale. It will take several years and some dedicated investigation to gauge how well CITES works for sharks and mantas in terms of stemming unsustainable trade. Even if it does reduce trade, it then takes decades to measure the recovery of shark and ray populations because their reproductive capacity is so low.

We are encouraged, again, by the capacity building efforts underway to better understand and assess shark populations. And we will continue our research efforts to help inform management decisions, such as studying the movement and migration of oceanic whitetip, bull and mako sharks.

Demian: One of the biggest failings overall is that we are usually only responding when shark and ray population declines are extremely severe—putting out the fires, so to speak. We need to be far more proactive and manage these species long before they become endangered. For example, the sharks listed on CITES are all Appendix II, which means that trade is supposed to be restricted so that they won’t become endangered to the point that trade needs to be prohibited. For at least one of the sharks, the oceanic whitetip, they are already prohibited from the landings of virtually every fishery they occur in. So CITES, in this case, was needed but is a bit late.

Do you see your work expanding or taking a different direction?

Demian: At the end of the day, trade restrictions must translate into fewer sharks killed if they are to have the desired effect of promoting sustainability. While we are encouraged when the authorities successfully prosecute a case of illegal shark fin trade, it doesn’t bring those sharks back to life. So our work is always evolving towards the end point of having more sharks alive in the water.

For example, we are involved in studies of the movements of certain shark species that will help fisheries management agencies within countries and regions reduce fishing mortality on these species. Paul G. Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) has also supported a new effort to survey reef sharks and rays all over the world to determine where the most robust populations are, and then to ensure that they are protected (

It is our hope, of course, that the fin identification work that we do builds up enforcement capacity to the point that fin traders avoid buying fins from CITES-listed species without the proper permits. This, in turn, would reduce demand for these species.

It sounds like there are some reasons for hope for a few shark species. But which ones are in dire need of protection now, before it is too late?

Debra: While there is a global consensus that we need to do a better job managing sharks and rays, very few management measures are in place for the majority of species. Pelagic (open ocean) sharks are of particular concern, and are priorities for fishery managers and conservationists alike. Thresher sharks, for example, are extremely vulnerable to overfishing due to their low productivity and late age of maturity. Currently, they are also exposed to high fishing pressure throughout their range and are considered one of the most threatened shark families.

There is very little basic, biological data being collected for guitarfish and wedgefish (known collectively as shark-like batoids). At present, there are little to no management measures in place for them. This is despite the fact that these batoids have a high value in the international shark fin trade. I’m afraid that if we don’t start paying attention to these species, they will suffer a fate similar to the extensive population declines we’ve already seen for the five species of sawfish.

Guitarfish for sale in Indonesian market. Photo by Stan Shea.

Demian: The ray species Debra mentioned—sawfish, wedgefish and guitarfish—simply don’t have the high public profile of sharks, but are in the fin trade nonetheless. They actually have some of the most valuable fins. There is nowhere near the awareness of the plight of these species, even though experts assess them as either endangered or extremely vulnerable to becoming endangered.

Sharks that have restricted ranges in coastal areas of Southeast Asia and The Coral Triangle also concern us. The countries in this region have some of the largest shark catches (Indonesia has the world’s largest shark fishery, for example) yet very little oversight and management. It is very possible that some species that live primarily in this region are being fished very close to extinction. So there’s good news for some sharks and rays, but alarming trends for others.

For more info on shark fin identification, go to:

Many thanks to Stan Shea at Bloom ( for his fine photography.

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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.