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Andy Cornish/WWF
Andy Cornish/WWF
Freshly caught thresher sharks brought in to market

Sharks and CITES: crossing my fins for a win-win scenario

Added to Blogs on 15 October 2016
I am feeling a bit nervous and a bit nostalgic for an event from three years ago. In the build-up to a critical vote on sharks and rays at the 17th CITES conference in South Africa in the coming days, my stomach is tied in knots, writes Umair Shahid, North Indian Ocean Cooridnator, WWF-Pakistan.

Three years ago, five shark species (oceanic whitetip and porbeagle as well as scalloped, smooth and great hammerheads) and manta rays were listed through a robust process onto CITES Appendix II, which strictly regulates international trade. And now here we are again, with two new shark species (threshers, silky shark) and nine species of mobula rays up for listing on Appendix II.

Participating countries have been spending time developing their positions – to either support, defer or oppose the adoption. And a lot of work has been done by international organizations, which have been working closely with CITES member states, providing capacity-building support. Many, many meetings have been held over the past few months.

Sharks for oceans or humans?

During the intense discussions to keep up momentum and garner support, and after meeting numerous representatives of member states, scientists, activists, shark lovers and politicians, I have received mixed feedback, which has led me to think about who needs sharks more, us or the oceans?

Sharks are apex predators and play an important role in the marine ecosystem. However, not all sharks are at the top of the food chain, though they still continue to play a major role in maintaining ecological processes. From reef sharks to pelagic and demersal shark species, they all have a significant role to play. Yet, on the other hand, sharks end up on plates around the globe, whether as fish and chips, cured, as steaks, or in the infamous shark fin soup.

What does the science say?

In the build-up to CoP17, reports and materials have been made available to countries to guide them in preparing their positions. Arguably, some have pre-determined their stance by seeking out gaps in the assessment conducted thus far on the proposed shark species. Yet while there is deficiency in data, there is no doubt that shark populations have declined drastically over the past few decades.

Reports from the Northern Indian Ocean indicate that the decline in shark populations has allowed other species, such as Indian mackeral, unicorn leatherjacket filefish and trigger fish, to increase in numbers. Does this suggest that removing top-level predators may lead to such trophic scenarios? And would these go unnoticed?

A lack of data or poor knowledge may always defy conservation and management measures. Yet, how much is enough? What science do we need to prove that our oceans are changing, and that the change is happening now, as I write? Thousands of fishing boats are fishing in the oceans right now, taking sharks as bycatch, with some being finned and their carcasses discarded, transshipped across the high seas, made part of unreported catches. How do we resolve this data deficiency?

Well, where there is a will, there is way! The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982), through its implementing agreement, provides for the precautionary approach, to act when there is not enough robust science to guide us. When the lack of data is evident, the data that already exists is enough to make informed decisions.

Is responsible consumption sustainable?

The question is what would the new listings really mean? Would they mean that these species would not be traded? The ask is to ensure that stocks are managed sustainably and that these species are traded in accordance with the procedures provided by CITES. It may mean more work, and there would be reservations around implementing such a tedious task, but it is up to member countries to manage their fishing stocks to ensure food security and sustainable growth for future generations.

Is that too much to ask for? Should the countries not regulate trade? Should they not be held responsible?

Win-win vs win-lose

I believe that a win-win scenario is the listing of new species on CITES and widespread compliance in the management and implemenation of CITES’ requirements. A win-lose scenario would mean adoption of the new listings, but failure to implement the requirements or to regulate trade. That would be a big loss and a failure for any member state.

However, we need to be mindful that the CITES Secretariat, along with many like-minded countries and a number of international organizations, are there to support and facilitate the process, which is invaluable for building capacity and knowledge and regulating trade for CITES-enlisted species.

The verdict

I have seen great white sharks in South Africa and whale sharks and reef sharks in the Maldives, and to me it seems that the shark tourism industry has more to offer a country, in terms of generating revenue, than the shark fishing industry in many parts of the world. In the past few years, I have only seen dead sharks landed at fishing ports, with their meat sold for small amounts.

I have frequently observed threshers, silky sharks, hammerheads and oceanic whitetip sharks being landed at different ports. In my recent visit to Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the majority of the catch comprised these species.

They are magnificent animals, and for continued growth and sustainability, I am eagerly hoping that there is a two-thirds majority voting in favour of these proposals, allowing for more sustainable consumption and trade, with traceability of fisheries products building consumer awareness.

With the vote in sight, I have my fins crossed and look forward to celebrating… and to working with coastal countries to facilitate implementation.




Umair Shahid

Assistant Manager, Marine Conservation, WWF Pakistan

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