Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Mexico Stand Up for Overlooked Sharks

By Luke Warwick

Today, the Governments of Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Mexico announced they would sponsor proposals to protect some of the worlds most endangered sharks at next year’s CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP). CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

This exciting announcement was made at the annual meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, the governing body of the Convention between meetings of the CoP. Proposals were announced by Senegal and Sri Lanka that would see 16 species of giant guitarfish and wedgefish (flattened rays often grouped with sharks) offered protection via listing in Appendix II of CITES—thereby regulating international trade in their fins, and other products for the first time.

Mexico also added their voice to support further shark conservation action, confirming that they would be submitting a proposal to list both species of mako shark on Appendix II, bringing the number of species under consideration for listing to 18 – a record for sharks at a CITES meeting!

These must-needed listings would ensure that any continued trade is sustainable and legal. A report launched this week shows that their fins are regularly traded and highly prized—having the highest value of any fin found for sale in the global trade hub of Hong Kong. Despite that value, and declining populations, these fascinating species are subject to little or no management globally, and have already disappeared from much of their former range.

Drying shark fins and meat being prepared for export. Credit: Luke Warwick/WCS.

The CITES Standing Committee, hosted in Russia for the first time in the 40+ years of CITES history, also analyzed the various implementation efforts underway to control the shark fin trade via the existing listings under the Convention. Despite ongoing challenges, governments from all around the world cited strong progress, reporting on the steps they are taking to protect and sustainably manage sharks.

However, we must still do much more if we are to halt global declines facing sharks. Findings in two recent studies highlight just how urgent additional action is.

One recent paper tracks the success of CITES implementation for sharks, showing that in Hong Kong, the global trade hub, large quantities of fins of CITES-listed species continue to be traded, possibly illegally, despite management progress globally and the Hong Kong government’s excellent efforts in confiscating large quantities of illegally traded fins since 2014.

A wedgefish, showing its high value dorsal fins. Credit: Luke Warwick/WCS.

A second recent research paper demonstrates that as a whole, the global trade in shark fins remains deeply unsustainable, and calls for the trade to cease unless urgent action is taken to regulate it more fully. The CITES listing of all traded species is identified as a potential option to deliver the transparency, legality, and sustainability critical for such a high value trade.

Additional CITES listings, along with continued implementation efforts will ensure that this trade—and the consumption of shark fins that drives it—does not drive the most vulnerable species to extinction, including the guitarfish and wedgefish highlighted today.

In spite of the excellent implementation progress showcased by several governments at the Standing Committee meeting, less than 20 percent of the world’s shark fin trade is regulated under CITES, and CITES is the only international mechanism available to regulate such international trade.

A wedgefish in its inshore habitat. Credit: ©Matt Potenski.

This is a welcome increase from less than 1 percent in 2012. However, the IUCN has identified several families of sharks as among the world’s most vulnerable, including the wedgefish and giant guitarfish. With 80 percent of global international trade completely unregulated, governments across the globe should welcome these proposals.

Any such action will be decided upon next May at the CITES CoP in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Government used the announcement of these proposals to extend an invitation to governments and organizations globally to attend this meeting to facilitate progress on global wildlife conservation and management.

With the leadership of Sri Lanka, Senegal, and other governments, the meeting next year holds out hope for real progress in a critical area of marine conservation.

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

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.