Getting Tough on Illegal and Unregulated Shark and Ray Trade at CITES

By Luke Warwick

From July 16-21, a record number of scientists and other experts from around the world gathered in Geneva at a scientific and technical committee meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to debate the best way to protect the world’s endangered species.

And fittingly, in this most sharky of weeks, that included global shark conservation experts.

I attended as part of the delegation of WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) to focus on issues regarding sharks and rays. CITES member governments have been working to secure a future for species threatened by trade since the Convention entered into force in 1975. In the last several years, it has finally been placing an increasing focus on saving the world’s sharks and rays.

CITES member governments meet every 2-3 years to decide which species should be protected under the treaty—either regulating or prohibiting their trade (so-called “Appendices”). With an unstainable, largely unregulated trade in fins (and increasingly shark meat) driving global declines of sharks and rays, in 2013 CITES took a landmark step in protection species—such as hammerhead sharks and manta rays—that were being driven to the brink of extinction by the international demand for their fins (and for mantas, their gill plates).

Today, the real work is underway, for governments to implement these listings, and ensure that hammerhead sharks, mantas, devil rays, and many other species, do not disappear due to rampant, unsustainable international trade.


Real work is underway to ensure that hammerhead sharks, mantas, devil rays, and many other species, do not disappear due to rampant, unsustainable international trade. Photo credit: Keith Ellenbogen

WCS is at the forefront of that effort, both at these high-level scientific meetings at high-level international conferences such as the CITES Conference of the Parties, at the UN level, and on the ground globally, where our programs around the world work closely with Governments to put in place the monitoring, enforcement and management measures that these listings mandate.

Last week in Geneva, the gathered experts discussed new and innovative ways of identifying shark and ray products that are being traded illegally—using visual and genetic enforcement tools. They also reviewed progress to date, and reminded countries of the need for domestic action to properly manage shark catch and trade.

Progress is slow, but crucial. For many countries, the CITES listings of sharks and rays provided the first driver to manage trade and the fisheries that underpin them, building on the strong record of enforcement action that the CITES Convention carries.

Tens of millions of sharks and rays are in international trade every year for the food trade, and CITES is trying to do its part to ensure they have a future. Sharks won’t be effectively protected or sustainably managed overnight, but CITES shark and ray listings, and the real change their careful implementation is bringing, provide a ray of hope that we can act before these ancient predators vanish forever.

Luke Warwick is Associate Director for Sharks and Rays at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).


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