Earlier this week, the annual summit for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) held in Bangkok, Thailand, made a landmark decision by voting to give further protection to five commercially important yet critically endangered shark species, as well as manta rays and a freshwater sawfish from the Asia-Pacific region. The 174 nations that comprise the treaty, which regulates the trade in wild plants and animals, voted by a two-thirds majority to upgrade the global protection status of such species. Although there are concerns that the decision could be reversed by a final vote on the last day of the meeting, this is significant progress for shark conservation and indeed protection of the greater marine environment. Over the last decade, worldwide shark populations have declined rapidly due to marine habitat destruction, pollution, over-fishing, and the growing demand for shark-fin soup in East Asia. Furthermore, many shark species take several years to reach sexual maturity and produce few offspring, which reduces their ability to replenish populations. Thus, the outcome of this year’s Cites meeting will – hopefully – bring further awareness to the greater importance of protecting marine and coastal environments, by enforcing sustainable fishing approaches.
The Threat of Shark-Finning
Shark finning is a profitable and specialized method of fishing, which involves removing the dorsal fins and tail flukes from live sharks with a hot metal blade; the remainder of the animal is subsequently thrown overboard and dies from suffocation or predation. With the body of the shark discarded, this provides more deck-space for more fins to be stored, which encourages fishermen to catch more sharks – sometimes thousands of individuals – for finning. Around half of all fins are sold to Hong Kong, from where they are further distributed to mainland China and Taiwan, and become ingredients for traditional medicines and shark-fin soup. Recently, the demand for fins has increased rapidly, mostly due to growing prosperity in China: a country where social status is valued extremely highly. As the burgeoning middle class of coastal and urban China continues to grow, the demand for shark-fin soup, which is traditionally served at affluent weddings and viewed as a status symbol of wealth and sophistication, is also rising. The majority of fins originate from Spain (which typically provides one third of all the fins to Hong Kong) and Indonesia, as well as Iran, New Zealand and Nigeria, where sophisticated and efficient fishing techniques are used to meet demands. Shark finning is a lucrative industry – the fins from some species are said to retail around $400 per kilogram. Currently, studies estimate that 26 to 73 million sharks – and especially larger species – are caught each year for their fins; this is a problem because most species take years to reach maturity and produce few young to regulate their population numbers.
Since the mid-1990s, marine conservationists have pushed for Cites to protect vulnerable and valuable shark species. Such attempts have faced strong resistance from China, Japan and other East Asian nations, who claim other organisations are responsible for managing ocean fisheries. Despite this, the United States, European Union and Brazil have sought for more effective protection, which could be provided through Cites regulations. Recently, nations from Central and South America have witnessed the value of sharks to their economies, and especially for attracting tourists, who pay to see large pelagic fish species, including sharks and manta rays. In addition, many West African nations have also seen a crash in local shark populations due to offshore fishing fleets. As a result, many of these countries voted in favour of classifying three species of hammerhead, the oceanic white-tip, and porbeagle sharks to Appendix II restrictions. This does not mean a complete ban on catching such species; rather, it specifies a regulation on trade, and strictly controlled permits must be obtained in order to export the fins of the newly protected sharks – if too many sharks are taken, the exporting nation can be issued trade sanctions on other plant and animal species overseen by Cites. Another incentive was the promise that financial support – especially from the European Union – would be provided to developing nations to help change current fishing practices.
Species Gaining Protection
The modern species of sharks and rays belong to an ancient lineage of fish that possess cartilaginous skeletons, and which have inhabited aquatic environments for some 400 million years. In modern times, the oceanic white-tip sharks were, up until the 1990s, a widespread pelagic species; however, estimates now reveal that as many as one million individuals are caught each year for the shark-fin trade, leading to a projected population reduction of 90% in the Pacific Ocean, from 1995 and 2010. Even more valuable are the scalloped hammerhead sharks, which are noted for their characteristic schooling behavior; a trait which is rare among shark species and provides an easy target for fishermen. It is thought that approximately two million scalloped hammerheads are caught each year for their fins. Due to the anatomical similarities between scalloped hammerheads and great and smooth hammerheads, all three species have been placed under Appendix II classification to reduce confusion amongst fishermen. Inhabiting the North Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and Southern Oceans, the flesh of the porbeagle shark is valued by some European and Japanese communities; however, the species has a low fecundity rate and its population has declined by around 85% since the turn of the 1980s.
With a 7 meter wingspan, manta rays – the world’s largest ray species – are popular attractions for divers and tourists and have also been classified under Appendix II. Patrolling the world’s tropical and subtropical oceans, these enormous fish, which also have a slow reproductive rate, filter plankton from the surrounding water column with their robust gill-plates. However, a recently popularised trend in Chinese medicine now requires these gill-plates for the production of a purifying tonic; a practice that is not typical of traditional medicinal methods. Accordingly, some 5,000 manta rays are caught each year, primarily in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, which annually make around $5 million for traders. As well as heightened protection for certain marine species, a complete ban on the international trade of specimens and body parts of the sawfishPristis microdon, which once populated freshwater systems in South East Asia and countries of the Western Pacific, also gained approval from this year’s Cites summit. Like sharks, these animals have a skeleton composed of cartilage and belong to the Class Chondrichthyes, which encompasses all shark, skate and ray species. The sawfish, which is now restricted to a few rivers in Queensland, Australia, are valued for their fins and saws, and as live specimens in the aquarium trade.
The Importance of Conservation
The new levels of protection imposed by Cites are extremely encouraging for marine conservation. As top carnivores, predatory sharks are vital components of many marine ecosystems. On a tropical coral reef, for example, sharks control the populations of secondary consumers, such as squid, octopuses and other large fish. However, if the sharks are removed, due to fishing or finning practices, the numbers of secondary consumers grow to unsuitable levels, which proceed in feeding on primary consumers, including molluscs, crustaceans and other invertebrates, and small and juvenile fish species, until there is not enough food for the secondary consumers to survive. This phenomenon also overwhelms the communities that live at lower trophic levels and ultimately leads to the collapse of the reef ecosystem, which is often replaced by a carpet of green algae. Such outcomes are devastating for the marine environment and for regional tourism. Additionally, local fisherman, who collect shellfish from the reef, and who rely on fish nurseries (services provided by reef systems) to enable the replenishment of larger, open-water fish stocks, and thus provide food and financial income, are also heavily impacted; these problems are becoming more frequent for human communities in tropical, developing nations.
The decisions of the Cites summit could still be upturned at the end of the meeting, and environmentalists must wait for the final outcome. Nevertheless, the fact that governments are now taking marine conservation seriously is extremely promising. Hopefully, this will mark the start for more marine species, and the habitats that support such organisms, gaining international governmental protection and management, which the seas and oceans urgently need.