A Turning Tide for Shark Conservation (Summer 2013 Trust Magazine)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author: Penelope Purdy

07/15/2013 - Pew helps win international support for new protections for threatened sharks and manta rays.

Maligned in movies and myth as the fiercest creatures of the seas, the world’s sharks are actually the hunted. Today, because of commercial fishing, especially to supply the demand for shark fin soup in some Asian countries, many species are fighting for survival.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature reports that one-third of shark species are threatened or near threatened with extinction. And while some species are protected by a few countries, most of the threatened sharks are not protected from unsustainable fishing.

But thanks to science-backed diplomacy, five more species of sharks received international protection in March. Member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES, meeting in Bangkok voted to protect three species of hammerhead sharks, the porbeagle, and the oceanic whitetip shark. Members also voted to protect two manta ray species. The moves could be a sign of growing international support for conservation of sharks, which are essential predators in the ocean’s food web.

“The votes in Bangkok marked the most significant day for the ocean in the 40-year history of this international conservation treaty,” says Joshua Reichert, executive vice president of The Pew Charitable Trusts, which spent two years advocating for protection of the species under CITES, building a coalition to support votes for the shark measures, and sending a team to Thailand.

Just weeks after the Bangkok meeting, New Caledonia created a shark sanctuary the size of South Africa in its Pacific waters. And only months earlier, French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, American Samoa, and the Micronesian state of Kosrae had ended shark fishing in their waters. Noting a recent study that determined 100 million sharks are killed each year in commercial fisheries, Reichert, who heads Pew’s environmental projects, praises the moves. “Governments around the world must take action before it’s too late.

“Scientists warn that the rate of fishing for sharks, many of which grow slowly and reproduce late in life, is unsustainable and could lead to the extinction of many species,” says Reichert. (For more on Pew’s work to conserve sharks, see Trust, Summer 2011.)

Ensuring the conservation of sharks and related marine ecosystems has proved difficult. A broad coalition of governments supported the proposals going into the Bangkok meeting, but some countries that allow the trading of shark fins opposed them. CITES has 178 member governments, and only amends the list of species that it protects when it meets every two to three years. At its 2010 meeting, a majority of governments supported protection for several shark species, but those members couldn’t summon the two-thirds vote needed to adopt the proposals.

Going into the 2013 meeting, Pew’s team knew the odds could be against achieving the shark and manta ray protections. So for more than two years, the team planned and implemented a strategy of science-based international advocacy. The Pew staff worked closely with top shark experts to determine which species needed to be listed. Engaging a multicultural, multilingual coalition, the team also identified which countries would give serious consideration to the scientific evidence and sponsor the proposals. By the October 2012 deadline to submit proposed species listings, 37 countries—including the United States, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, and the 27 member states of the European Union—collectively sponsored four proposals to protect the oceanic whitetip shark, porbeagle, and three species of hammerhead sharks, along with the two manta ray species.

In preparation for the treaty conference, Pew’s team worked with scientists on every continent on crucial enforcement techniques, including a guide to help customs officers identify fins from the sharks that were to be listed. They traveled to key countries and held meetings with local officials and media to build support, providing materials in multiple languages.  In addition to data-heavy graphics and other detailed materials for policymakers, the team also created “Shark Stanley,” a cartoon character to explain conservation to schoolchildren.

The two-year-long effort culminated with the two-week meeting in Thailand. Pew’s team worked closely with the countries sponsoring the proposals to build support for the two-thirds majority needed to approve a conservation listing. While opposition was strong, Pew helped supporters counter objections with detailed scientific and technical information.

The final votes were close, but the proposals received the needed two-thirds majority. The oceanic whitetip shark proposal was adopted with 68.6 percent of the delegates present and voting. The three species of hammerhead sharks received 70 percent, and the porbeagle proposal passed with 70.45 percent. Manta rays received 80.7 percent.

The hard work ahead is ensuring that the listings are implemented effectively. They become official in September 2014, a deadline that allows countries to put protection measures in place. And that’s the time when one thing will be certain: The international shark fin trade will have to change, and these species of sharks will have a stronger chance for survival.

“The tide is now turning for shark conservation,” says Elizabeth Wilson, manager of Pew’s shark conservation campaign. “Countries around the world have recognized the problem and are finally acting to ensure the survival of some of our oceans’ top predators.” 

Penelope Purdy is a senior writer for Trust.

To learn more, go to pewenvironment.org/sharks.

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