CITES Vote Makes Sure 5 Shark Species Gain International Protection, But That is Not Enough

Before anything else, this article is intended mainly as a short follow up to the article PolicyMic pundit Jonathan Booth wrote yesterday on this subject, as well as the article I wrote on this some time ago (The shameless self-promotional plug is mostly so you know this isn't a new issue.) I recommend reading both, though Johnathan’s is much more detailed and up to date than my own.

I can remember the first time I went diving, knowing, without a shadow of a doubt, that there were going to be sharks. I had just begun working at a dive shop in my hometown as a divemaster and underwater videographer (This barely a month after attaining the divemaster rank), and slow mornings when we had no one scheduled to dive, the department head and another instructor decided to go clear lion fish (an invasive species in all waters between Maine and Trinidad) from one of our wreck sites.

“Let's give Danny a camera and bring him along!” The instructor said, to which the department head agreed was a good idea.

What followed was the most adrenaline-filled 25-minute dive I have ever had, and it turned my passive interest in sharks into a full-blown passion. Every dive after, whether I was filming sharks or simply observing them while leading a dive group, only served to increase that passion, though it's with mixed feelings I greet the news that the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) upheld an earlier vote at the recent Bangkok convention to regulate trade of five species of shark, as well as manta rays.

On the one hand, it's a relief that the decision stood. There was a great deal of concern that the vote would be overridden on the final day of the convention, and given how lucrative the trade in shark fins is and just how it has massacred shark populations the world over, it's good to see some kind of regulation. On the other, given that many populations have declined by over 90% in the last decade simply regulating the trade isn't enough. At this point, when 73 million sharks are killed every year (compared to the 484 people killed by sharks in the last 432 years) there is little time left for a slow and gradual approach. East Asia's hunger for shark fin isn't going away, and given how little regard China (the main consumer of shark fin soup) gives international law it's doubtful that the new regulations will make any impact on the trade. In addition, CITES has no enforcement mechanism of it's own so it is up to national governments to put the restrictions into effect.

I used to think that any kind of regulation of the finning trade was a victory, that even the smallest bit of law making it more difficult to sell a shark fin was something to celebrate. It was my former boss, dive department leader and world renowned shark diver Cristina Zenato, that taught me that slow progress is just that: Too slow compared to the rate of catching to make a difference; To save the innumerable endangered shark species, the only answer is that which Palau, Honduras, Tokelau, the Maldives, and the Bahamas have come to: A total ban on the catching or harvesting of any shark.

At this point I'm just repeating the bottom line of Jonathan's article as well as my own; that sharks as a whole are reaching a dangerously critical level of overfishing, and that once overfished the oceans will never be the same again. Removing an entire superorder of creature is guaranteed to wreak havoc on the already delicate balance of the oceanic ecosystem, and given that the oceans are already looking down the barrel of a man-made mass extinction event there isn't much time for us to act. The recent decision by CITES is a step towards victory rather than a victory itself, and it is a victory we must achieve.