The shark fin trade finally regulated by a historic decision

Countries at the world’s biggest wildlife summit have voted for the first time to regulate the trade that kills millions of sharks every year to feed the vast appetite for shark fin soup.

In what marine conservationists hailed as a landmark decision, parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, comprising 186 nations, voted to limit or regulate trade in 54 species of requiem-family sharks, including the tiger, bull and blue sharks that are most targeted for the fin trade. Six small species of hammerhead sharks have also been listed for protection, along with 37 types of guitarfish, which are shark-like rays.

Collectively, the three proposals would bring nearly all shark species traded internationally for their fins under CITES oversight and controls, up from just 25% before CITES CoP19.

The proposal put forward by host country Panama, and backed by 40 others, including EU countries and the UK, will offer protection to sharks which make up two-thirds of the species targeted by the fin market. It will require countries to ensure legality and sustainability before allowing exports of these species.

Most requiem sharks are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

“Now, at last, the deeply unsustainable shark fin trade will be fully regulated,” said Luke Warwick, director of shark and ray conservation for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

“These two families make up well over half of the shark fins traded each year in a half-billion dollar trade,” Warwick said. The new protections would give them a chance to recover and “will forever change the way predators in the world’s oceans are managed and protected”, he added.

Studies indicate that 37% of shark and ray species are threatened with extinction and oceanic or pelagic sharks have declined by more than 70% in just 50 years. Scientists say these declines are the direct result of overfishing and unregulated international trade, resulting from a lack of national and international management.

The proposal did not pass without opposition. Japan tabled an amendment to remove the 35 shark species that were not endangered or critically endangered from the original proposal, while Peru requested the removal of the blue shark. Both amendments failed to receive the necessary votes and after two hours of debate, the initial proposal was adopted without any changes. All CITES decisions are binding on States Parties, which will have one year to adapt their regulations on the fishing of these sharks.

“Requiem sharks are among the most traded but least protected species,” said Diego Jiménez, director of conservation policy at the nonprofit SeaLegacy. Nearly 70% of the requiem shark family is already endangered.

The family-level list will help customs and border officials enforce the law, Jiménez said, because nearly every shipment of shark finning would require the appropriate Cites permit or certificate. It could be a game-changer by increasing the percentage of fin trade managed by Cites from 25% to 70%, he said.

But critics, including marine biologists, say the CITES listing could have the opposite effect, driving up the price of the hidden market for fins and meat and increasing illegal shark fishing.

In 2021, imports of fins from Ecuador to Peru – the Americas’ top fin exporter – reached double pre-pandemic levels, according to a study by Oceana Peru. Of the 300 tonnes of dried fins from Ecuador, more than 160 tonnes came from a CITES-listed species, the endangered pelagic thresher shark, targeted for its exceptionally long fins.

“These levels of trade are occurring despite the fact that this is a species whose international trade is regulated by CITES,” said Alicia Kuroiwa, director of habitats and endangered species at Oceana Peru.

This case, along with other irregularities in shark fin exports from Peru to Hong Kong, has been brought to the attention of the CITES Standing Committee for “further investigation and recommendations to both countries”, Kuroiwa said.

A violation of Cites regulations could be sanctioned by the “temporary closure of trade in all Cites species, which would be very serious for Peru”, she added.

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