Improving Global Shark Conservation: The Need for Engagement by Both CITES and RFMOs


Joanna Benn, 202.247.5823
Rachel Brittin, 202.540.6312

Shark populations around the world are declining, and levels of removal are unsustainable for many species. Sharks present a complex conservation challenge because they are highly migratory, often caught on the high seas, and traded on the international market. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) are both needed if efforts to properly manage and protect the world's depleted shark populations are to succeed. 


Combining Regional Fisheries Management with CITES Protection

CITES and RFMO regulations are complementary, and both are necessary to fully protect threatened shark species.

Few international regulations currently limit catch of sharks, allowing for tens of millions to be caught and killed every year, largely for the international shark fin trade. Although CITES and RFMOs may regulate action impacting the same species, they affect different activities and have different geographical and jurisdictional reaches.

RFMOs are responsible for managing fish stocks on the high seas and those that migrate through the waters of more than a single country. Under the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement (UNFSA), coastal and fishing states agreed to work together to conserve all species associated with or affected by their fisheries, including sharks.

In contrast to RFMOs, CITES regulates international trade in endangered, threatened, and vulnerable species and those that may become threatened unless their international trade is regulated across the globe. CITES also provides for improved tracking, enforcement, and management of the species that would not occur in the absence of a CITES listing.

RFMO Shark Masures Are Absent or Insufficient

Sharks are caught in the convention areas of many RFMOs by vessels flagged to their members. However, most RFMOs have taken little to no action to manage sharks. Some are starting to take a stronger stance in adopting conservation and management measures for sharks, but their sphere of influence has limitations: RFMOs have authority over only some of the fishing activities of vessels flagged to member States. Each RFMO manages specific species and fisheries in a particular area. Therefore, if an RFMO adopts a shark measure for a particular species, that measure applies only to the ocean areas within that RFMO's convention boundaries, the fisheries managed by the RFMO, and the countries that participate in the RFMO. The geographic range of many shark species surpasses the RFMO boundaries (Figure 1), however, and many fisheries and vessels catching sharks are outside of the jurisdiction of the RFMO. As a result, directed shark fisheries and fisheries that catch sharks as bycatch frequently are not subject to RFMO management.

Given that measures adopted by RMFOs do not provide all of the tools necessary to achieve progress in conserving sharks, the inclusion of certain species on the CITES Appendices is a crucial step in building an effective international framework for the conservation of sharks.

Stronger Together

In contrast to RFMOs, which directly regulate and manage fishing, CITES is the principal means by which the global community regulates international trade for a particular species. CITES does so by using import and export permits to regulate international trade in threatened and endangered species and those that may become threatened. Listing of species on one of the CITES Appendices complements management measures adopted by RFMOs and can improve RFMO members' ability to monitor compliance with their shark fishing regulations.

Shark fisheries are primarily driven by international trade pressure, and both fisheries and CITES and RFMO regulations are complementary, and both fisheries and trade need to be carefully monitored and controlled, considering the high vulnerability of shark species to overexploitation.

CITES Parties are required to maintain records of international trade in specimens listed under each of the Appendices, including the number, species, size, and sex (when available) of the specimens, and the names and addresses of the importers and exporters. Quantified trade data would provide crucial assistance to shark management efforts by RFMOs by enabling both RFMO and CITES Parties to better monitor shark catches and extraction rates by species,
track trends in shark trade, project associated changes in fishing effort, and assess the efficacy of fishery management measures aimed at conserving sharks.

CITES and RFMO regulations are complementary, and both are necessary to fully protect threatened shark species. CITES can help extend shark conservation measures to port and market States, because it includes Parties from more than 90 percent of the world's countries (176 members), and all major trading countries, and thus has the ability to regulate shark trade across the supply chain. While it is extremely important to control the trade of sharks at the port of entry, RFMOs have the ability to control both targeted fishing for sharks and adopt measures to mitigate shark bycatch.

Including shark species on Appendix II of CITES would regulate international trade resulting from fisheries catching sharks. It also would assist enforcement of and compliance with RFMO measures by helping to track shark shipments and to combat illegal and unsustainable targeting of sharks and illegal trade in shark products.

CITES 2013