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March 5, 2013

CITES: tackling the trade in threatened sharks and rays



All eyes in the shark conservation world are on Bangkok, where one of the most important conservation meetings kicked off on Sunday. Countries that are Parties to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) are meeting to discuss and decide on the protection of species that are threatened by international trade – including sharks and rays.

CITES has the power to offer several types of protection to these iconic species. Decisions are made by vote: a two-thirds majority is required to add or remove species to Appendix I (for which exports are prohibited, except for exceptional circumstances, and never for commercial purposes) or Appendix II (for which trade is monitored, and export or re-export permits must be issued, but only where it can be shown that specimens have been legally obtained and that the export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species).

This year, 11 threatened species of sharks and rays are being proposed for protection. Ten of these species – including porbeagle sharks, manta rays, and three species of hammerheads – are proposed for inclusion in Appendix II, while the critically endangered freshwater sawfish, which is already listed under Appendix II, could be given stricter protection under Appendix I.

In the past, there has been a lot of debate about the role of CITES in protecting commercial fish species. Some countries have argued that fish conservation should only be handled through fisheries management authorities. Yet, when it comes to sharks and rays, it’s clear that fisheries management alone isn’t working. A third of assessed species are considered threatened, and many threatened species continue to be caught, landed, and sold, including the ones up for discussion at CITES. Monitoring their international trade, and requiring that this trade be legal and sustainable, is an obvious and complementary measure to take for their conservation.

CITES meetings are always political. At the last Conference of the Parties in 2010, politics won out over conservation of marine species. Governments failed to ban the international trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna and implement international trade regulations for seven shark species and 31 species of red and pink coral, all of which are important for the oceans, livelihoods and local economies. In fact, some of the same species up for discussion this time around were proposed for Appendix II protection then – the three hammerhead species, oceanic whitetip, and porbeagle sharks. One interesting angle to this year’s meeting is a discussion about the role of secret ballots in the CITES voting process, which have often been used in the case of marine species. A proposal from the EU would see the CITES rules of procedure changed, to restrict the use of secret ballots in the interest of greater transparency.

This year, we’re hoping that Parties to CITES are ready to act on behalf of threatened marine species. Let’s hope that this year, reason wins out over politics – and secret votes. We’ll keep you updated.