Each year, at least 63 million and as many as 273 million sharks are killed in the world’s commercial fisheries, an unsustainable fishing rate driven by increasing demand for their fins, meat, liver oil, and other products.1 As a result, shark populations have suffered declines worldwide, and more than half of shark species and their relatives assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature are categorized as Threatened or Near Threatened with extinction.2
But a turning point for shark conservation came in 2013, when five commercially traded species—oceanic whitetip; porbeagle; and great, scalloped, and smooth hammerhead sharks—and two species of manta ray were added to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This listing requires that any international trade in these species be legal and not detrimental to populations in the wild. Three years later, CITES parties added bigeye, common, and pelagic thresher sharks; silky sharks; and mobula rays to Appendix II, bringing to 20 the number of commercially important shark and ray species subject to trade measures. While more work is needed to stabilize populations of these vulnerable species worldwide, the CITES listings have prompted unprecedented implementation action by the parties.
Since 2016, more than 70 governments have participated in regional and domestic workshops on how to ensure that trade in sharks and rays listed on Appendix II is legal and sustainable.
These workshops aim to promote cooperation between customs, environment, and fisheries officials and build capacity domestically and among countries. Training topics included the role of governments in regulating international trade, identifying shark species based on their fins, providing enforcement guidance, and conducting non-detriment findings (NDFs)—the determination required by CITES to allow countries to continue their trade in listed species. Armed with these tools, countries can meet their CITES obligations and play an essential role in reducing shark mortality globally.
While CITES aims to ensure that international trade in species does not threaten the animals’ survival, the listings have prompted governments, often for the first time, to properly manage their shark and ray fisheries or offer these animals full protection within their waters. Development of NDFs, prohibiting catch or trade of CITES-listed species, or establishing full protections can all be used to implement CITES listings for sharks and rays.
Countries can continue international trade in a species listed on Appendix II if they conduct an NDF that shows that the trade is legal and sustainable. Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and Indonesia, among others, have done that, making use of new, freely available electronic tools. Other countries—such as Cape Verde, the Philippines, and the United Arab Emirates—have prohibited the export or catch of all or some CITES-listed shark species. Still others, such as India, have put in broader measures, such as prohibiting the export of shark fins. Some governments, including most recently Samoa and the Dominican Republic, have gone even further, prohibiting commercial fishing, possession, sale, and trade of shark and ray species and their products in their waters.
Over half of the annual global shark fin trade passes through Hong Kong, making it critical that its government take an active role in curtailing illegal and unsustainable trade. Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department has been at the forefront of global efforts to implement the new CITES listings. Since 2014, the Hong Kong government has hosted nine workshops to train its customs and enforcement officials on how to visually identify fins of CITES-listed species. Using at least in part the skills they gained in these sessions, Hong Kong customs personnel seized more than 5 metric tons of shark fins from 2014 through July 2018.
Through training, government officials from at least 70 countries have learned how to identify and stop illegal trade in CITES-listed shark and ray species. A wide range of tools is available in multiple languages, including shark fin identification guides and posters, to help governments ensure that continued trade in these species is legal, sustainable, and traceable. Table 2 provides a summary of these tools, many of which can be found at www.identifyingsharkfins.org or on the CITES shark portal.
CITES has become a driving force in global shark conservation and management. And countries have shown a commitment to implementing all of the CITES shark and ray Appendix II listings and to continuing the momentum to properly manage these species worldwide. But even with the progress made since 2013, only 3.9 to 17.8 percent of the global fin trade is regulated.3 Clearly, more work is needed to ensure that these vulnerable species receive the protections a CITES Appendix II listing can provide.