How International Shark Trade Restrictions Have Gained Momentum

A decade of conservation changed a species’ image from villain to vulnerable

How International Shark Trade Restrictions Have Gained Momentum
Guitarfish
Eighteen species of sharks and rays—including 10 species of wedgefish—received trade protections in 2019.
Matthew D Potenski

This is the seventh in a series of articles commemorating a decade of shark conservation work. 

At least 63 million and as many as 273 million sharks are killed each year in commercial fisheries, mostly due to the demand for fins and other parts. This unsustainable rate of fishing has helped spur momentum for shark conservation over the past six years. A turning point for these long misunderstood predators came in 2013, when the first commercially traded shark and ray species were included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Since then, CITES has become a driving force in global shark conservation and management, with numerous countries committing to ensure that trade is sustainable and legal, and that the species are properly managed.

For insights on the landmark 2013 listings and the surging enthusiasm for shark conservation, The Pew Charitable Trusts spoke to Colonel Abba Sonko, head of the CITES management authority in Senegal, and Daniel Fernando, co-founder of the Sri Lanka-based Blue Resources Trust. Senegal and Sri Lanka were among the governments championing shark listings at the recent CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP) in Geneva, where 18 shark and ray species were added to Appendix II.

Q: Were you surprised by how well governments responded to implement the CITES shark listings of 2013?

Colonel Abba Sonko
Colonel Abba Sonko

Sonko: 2013 helped our countries become aware of the vulnerability of these species, especially in West Africa. Afterwards, we established programs to implement these listings and raised awareness with fishermen, as well as the Subregional Fisheries Commission, which brings together seven countries of West Africa.

Fernando: Prior to 2013, many CITES Parties were unaware of the issues faced by sharks and rays. This situation has changed and, over the years, even more countries and their respective CITES management authorities have recognized these species as priorities for management to ensure sustainable fisheries. The extremely successful implementation since 2013 has also provided a lot of confidence for additional listings.

Q: What role has your country played in implementing these listings domestically and regionally?

Sonko: At CoP16, Senegal led in urging support for shark and ray proposals by the West African region, which was critical for the adoption of the listings. Senegal held the first ever implementation workshop in the region in 2014 and subsequent workshops. We developed programs to raise awareness on CITES listings, including in schools, as it is important to educate both adults and young people, who are tomorrow’s leaders. We produced and distributed in collaboration with the fisheries department more than 3,000 species identification guides to all major fishing wharves in Senegal. Regionally, we shared these guides with the Economic Community of West African States countries and organized workshops to help countries effectively identify CITES-listed sharks and rays and develop awareness programs at home.  Domestically, we are in the process of strengthening our legislation to facilitate improved implementation. 

Daniel Fernando
Daniel Fernando

Fernando: Sri Lanka hosted multiple regional workshops focused on shark and ray identification tools and forums to discuss coordinated shark and ray management.

At a domestic level, the enhanced customs training, revised national plan of action for sharks, and non-detriment findings (NDFs) that resulted from CITES listings are enabling improved data collection and encouraging the development of additional management measures to better protect these species.


Q: What tools have been the most helpful in implementing the CITES shark and ray listings?

Sonko: It is really important to develop implementation programs for newly listed species if we want these listings to have the expected effect. So far, the tools we have used the most are the shark fin identification guides.

Fernando: The CITES shark listings have received unprecedented levels of implementation compared to other listed species. In addition to identification guides and posters, an NDF guidance document and electronic NDF template have been developed and disseminated globally.

CITES
Colonel Abba Sonko addressing participants at a regional implementation workshop in Senegal.
Stan Shea

Q: Will this global effort in implementing the CITES listings lead to the end of the illegal trade of sharks?

Sonko: We hope so. After the listings were adopted, we asked Parties to work on implementation, whether they were exporting or importing countries. For example, if shark fins leave Senegal for Hong Kong, and Hong Kong does not implement CITES regulations, our implementation work is flawed. That said, countries are increasingly more vigilant, and when small products arrive at a destination, the different stakeholders in charge of enforcing CITES regulations, such as customs officers, vouch for better traceability and legality of trade.

Fernando: As with any lucrative trade, regulatory measures invariably result in an emergence of illegal trade. However, as implementation expands and improves, along with growing awareness of the need for shark management, compliance will increase. Compliance will also be further bolstered as countries introduce more stringent penalties for illegal wildlife trade as a whole.

CITES
Participants at a regional implementation workshop in Sri Lanka practice shark fin identification.
Isabel Ender

Q: Why has it been important to your country to have sharks and rays listed by CITES? What would you like to see countries do to comply with these listings?

Sonko: Senegal is working hard on listing species on CITES partly because we have an ocean coast of 1,600 kilometers (994 miles), and rays and sharks represent mobile resources. The animals that cross our coasts will also swim in Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea, and Morocco. If these countries do not take the regulatory provisions Senegal takes, it will be problematic to ensure the sustainability of our fisheries. Senegal alone cannot lead the fight.

As CITES focal point for Senegal, I take into account the imperatives of conservation at my country’s level, and at the regional and global level. If Senegal loses a species, I consider that the planet loses a species, too. I am advocating for our national priorities and work to gather support from the region and the world.

Fernando: For a small developing island nation such as Sri Lanka, fisheries form an integral component of our economy and livelihoods. To maintain this lucrative and valuable industry, it is essential that any fish, including sharks and rays, are captured and traded at sustainable levels. Conventions, such as CITES, have proven to be a strong driver to encourage such positive change. Moving forward, it is essential that countries work together to formulate joint management measures and strategies given that most listed shark and ray species are highly migratory and cannot simply be managed exclusively at a domestic level. Such coordination will also strengthen and help grow existing multilateral environmental agreements and regional fisheries management organizations.

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