Reaction to CITES: Sharks in critical trouble

Posted on April 1, 2010
Written by: Wendy Benchley and Dr. Ellen K. Pikitch

The world considered fundamental questions in Doha, Qatar this week. Which species should be protected from over-exploitation in international trade and which species should be allowed to disappear forever?

CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) held its Conference of the Parties to answer these questions, as it does every 2-3 years.

There are no international laws to protect some of the planet’s most threatened and important marine animals that are under relentless fishing pressure. The closest we have to international protection is CITES, an international agreement among 175 governments that was created to protect species that are threatened with extinction from international trade.

At the Conference, CITES members decided whether to add endangered or threatened species to either of two lists: Appendix I - so bad off that no trade is allowed, or Appendix II - so much concern that monitoring and regulation of the trade is needed.

This year, Japan appeared hell-bent on not allowing important marine species to be protected. Japan actively secured support to successfully block the listing of several important marine species in need of protection at this year’s CITES conference.

It was expected that Japan would fight the listing of Atlantic blue fin tuna populations that are down by as much as 97%. Japan, which consumes 80% of the catch, had already announced it would not abide by the decision if the fish became listed. Japan led the effort to kill the measure. Now, international fisheries will continue to drastically over-fish the Atlantic blue fin tuna population that is already on its last ‘legs’.

Going into this Conference, there was great hope among conservationists that several species of shark would be added to the CITES list. Demand for shark fin soup is driving the widespread slaughter of sharks throughout the world. Sharks, as apex predators, are critical to the healthy balance in the oceans. Sharks reach sexual maturity very slowly and reproduce in relatively small numbers, making them especially vulnerable to the unrelenting over-fishing that has been inflicted upon them in recent decades.

This year, CITES considered 4 species of shark that are a significant target of the shark fin trade. Populations of the scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead and smooth hammerhead are down by 85% and oceanic whitetip populations are down by as much as 70% due to the shark fin soup trade. In addition, two other shark species, the porbeagle and spiny dogfish, were being considered because they are being over-fished for their meat.

Japan is not a significant consumer of shark or shark fin but it led the fight to reject the listing of these shark species that are prime targets of the shark fin trade. Indonesia, a major shark fishery, and China, the largest consumer of shark fins, joined Japan as it engineered another triumph of short-term commercial gain over the long-term survival of a species.  In plenary session, Japan then led the reversal of a previously successful vote on the porbeagle.

We know these decisions are not easy ones. By definition, species considered by CITES are important to trade. There are countries that are dependent on the income from fishing these species. Other countries consider certain foods their cultural right. We can understand a country’s sense of indignation when other countries attempt to tell them what to do or not do.

But, when is it ever ‘cultural’ to eat a species clear out of existence? When does it ever make good economic sense to destroy your own livelihood by killing off the entire populations of the animals you depend on? And when is it right for the appetite of one country to destroy the bounty of the entire world?

CITES is in danger of becoming a trade association when countries that benefit from the trade of endangered and threatened species can so easily create blocs to stop the protection of animals in the greatest need. This year at CITES, there was no pretense of valuing science over short-term greed among the countries that so cynically fought these critical initiatives.

Wendy Benchley,
Trustee Shark Savers,
Advisory Trustee Environmental Defense Fund

Prof. Ellen K. Pikitch, Ph.D., Executive Director,
Institute for Ocean Conservation Science,
Stony Brook University


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