Time to save our iconic marine animals

The extinction of sharks and rays, which are vulnerable to overfishing, could have devastating ecological consequences.

Scuba divers watch as a four meter giant manta ray visits a cleaning station just outside Hanifaru Bay of Maldives'' remote Baa Atoll
Manta ray gill plates are used in China for a soup believed to have special medicinal properties [Reuters]

Forty years ago, following the advice from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and others, the international community decided to address the critical issue of trading endangered species globally. In Washington, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was born with the objective of protecting wild plants and animals from the risk of extinction.

To do this, plants and animals can be proposed for listing on the Convention’s appendices I, II and III. Such listings either ban trade, limit it if harvesting is done within sustainable levels, or help protect a species of concern to individual countries.

One of the main tasks of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to CITES is to discuss amendments to Appendices I and II. When the Convention came into force, the list of species included in the appendices reflected the conservation concerns of the time, insofar as they related to international trade. They included animals in demand for skins like the big cats, popular pets such as parrots and ornamental plants like orchids and cacti.

With the exception of a few very exotic species, such as the coelacanth – a very rare fish regarded as an evolutionary stepping stone for amphibians – no marine fish were included at that stage. Nor were any added for a further 26 years, and it has become increasingly difficult to add new species in recent years.

Much has changed since 1973 in terms of economics of wildlife trade, the species that are in demand and the drivers of such demand. The rising middle class in China and elsewhere in Asia are now the biggest market for many wildlife products and that market is growing.

Save sharks and manta rays 

The 16th CoP began on March 3 and will continue until March 14. It is an opportunity for 177 member countries to demonstrate that the convention can fulfil its core objective of protecting marine species, specifically sharks and manta rays. These fish species have been victims of the apparent reluctance of CITES countries to regulate trade in marine species.

Sharks and rays are grouped together because of their anatomical similarity, having skeletons of cartilage rather than bone. They are especially vulnerable to overfishing. Compared to most fish species, they take a long time to reach breeding age and have relatively few offspring in their lifetime. Some species, such as hammerhead sharks and manta rays, aggregate in large numbers at certain times of the year which makes them even more vulnerable to fishing efforts.

Because of their role as apex predators – they are the tigers of the sea – their extinction will have profound and devastating ecological consequences. This is even before one can consider economic value of shark-diving and other forms of tourism, which is much greater than their value as food products.

First and foremost, the market for shark and ray products is a luxury one. While many parts of the animal are used and the meat of many species caught in artisanal fisheries is consumed locally, the main drivers of international trade are shark fins and meat, and manta ray rakers or gill plates. 

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Shark fin soup is a status symbol at Chinese celebratory banquets. Hammerhead shark fin is a particular favourite and costs as much as $135/kg in Hong Kong.

Gill plates – of various types of manta rays and devil rays – are used in China for a tonic soup that has become fashionable because of its perceived medicinal properties, even though it is not in the traditional Chinese pharmacopoeia. This is a recent trend and has led to the death of thousands of manta rays, bringing down its population by as much as 86 percent in the past six to eight years.

In Europe, the meat of certain species is regarded as a gourmet product, such as that of porbeagle shark.

Given the twin factors of vulnerability and demand, it is time for CITES to intensify its fight against rampant trade in shark products. CITES has been discussing generic issues related to the shark trade for the past 15 years, but the progress has been painfully slow.

Over the years, some shark species, including whale, basking shark and great white shark, have been listed by CITES and has limited international trade due to sustainable catch levels and helped reduce the threat of overfishing.

Nevertheless, recent meetings have failed to adopt proposals to list more commercially important species.

Vulnerable and iconic species

In 2010, a proposal to include three large species of hammerhead sharks and the oceanic whitetip shark, both valued for their fins; and the porbeagle shark, valued for both its fins and meat; in the Appendix II failed.

The proposals were endorsed by the CITES Secretariat, IUCN and TRAFFIC – a joint programme of IUCN and WWF  – and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and all came close to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority of votes, except for the porbeagle sharks which missed being included by just one vote.

Why is there such entrenched opposition to CITES intervention in the shark trade? The stated reason is that commercial fish species are the proper remit of FAO and regional fishery bodies, and, therefore, not the responsibility of the Convention.

However, this reason does not bear scrutiny. While the FAO can provide advice on best fishing practice, in no sense is it a fisheries management body – nor, indeed, does it claim that role. Regional fishery bodies worldwide, which manage migratory fish, do not, collectively, cover the full geographic range of vulnerable shark species.

Moreover, most of them have failed repeatedly to adopt meaningful measures to address those shark fisheries that come within their remit. In many instances, the countries that argue these fish are the proper domain of regional fishery bodies then go on to block the adoption of management measures in those organisations. In any event, only CITES has a mandate to regulate international wildlife trade.

The upcoming CITES CoP16 will consider five proposals regarding marine sharks and manta rays.

Hammerheads, whitetips and porbeagle sharks are up for debate again, endorsed on this occasion by a range of countries across the Americas, Europe and Africa.

Meanwhile, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador have a proposal to include manta rays in the limited trade. All the proposals have, once again, achieved a significant level of independent endorsement.

It should be remembered that the core objective of CITES is to protect wild fauna and flora against over-exploitation through international trade. It is time that the Convention fulfilled this mandate with respect to these uniquely vulnerable and iconic species.

Dr Colman O’Criodain is Policy Analyst, International Wildlife Trade, WWF International. 

Follow him on Twitter: @CITESKing