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BIODIVERSITY: Lucrative Shark Trade Under Scrutiny

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Mar 12 2010 (IPS) - As climate change transforms the acidity and oxygen levels of the world’s waters with devastating effects for some marine species, others are facing an even more immediate threat from human consumption.

To reverse that unsustainable trade, an unprecedented number of aquatic species have been proposed for listing on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in order to prohibit or significantly curtail international trade in those species.

Among them are eight species of sharks – sought for dishes ranging from shark fin soup to fish and chips. This Saturday and for the following two weeks, these sharks and a high-profile lineup of other species will be discussed as the parties to CITES meet in Doha.

Recent studies have estimated that up to 73 million sharks are caught each year for the fin trade alone, though it is notoriously hard to gather precise numbers on it.

With a growing and increasingly well-off population – especially in eastern Asia, where shark fin soup is a delicacy – the intensity with which sharks are fished has been increasing. But so has the intensity of efforts to slow this unsustainable practice.

“The fact that we’re seeing more proposals for sharks at CITES is a good sign in that species that need this international attention and monitoring are getting it, but it is also a sad sign of the oceans being in real danger,” said Ellen Pikitch, executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University in New York, who has conducted a number of studies on international trade in sharks.

Since shark products are generally exported from one country to another, a CITES listing could have a huge impact on the threatened species’ recovery.

Sharks have particular biological characteristics that make them extremely vulnerable to overfishing, including the fact that many give birth to live young, while other fish may produce hundreds of thousands of eggs.

They also have notoriously long pregnancies. The spiny dogfish, one of the species up for listing on CITES, has the longest gestation period of any vertebrate at 24 months. Spiny dogfish can also live 100 years or more and do not reach sexual maturity until a decade or two in.

Because of these biological handicaps, said Pikitch, “scientists have been concerned for a long time about the effects of sharks being fished on a large scale –and that’s what we’ve been seeing now.”

Spiny dogfish have small fins and are instead fished for their meat, which has replaced North Atlantic cod – after that fishery was decimated by overfishing – as the main fish for fish and chips dishes in the Europe.

But now, spiny dogfish populations in the northeast Atlantic “are so depleted that they’ve essentially collapsed,” according to Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation at the Pew Environment Group.

The EU, he says, has closed its fisheries for spiny dogfish as well as for porbeagle, another shark fished for its meat and up for a CITES listing in Doha. “Europe has taken all the measures that it can to protect these species in their water but need they action to be taken globally,” said Rand.

Another two of sharks up for CITES – oceanic whitetip and scalloped hammerhead – are threatened by unsustainable demand for their fins while the rest are other hammerhead species that have been included in the proposal as “look-alike species” since their fins are not easily distinguishable from scalloped hammerheads’.

All these sharks have been proposed for Appendix II of CITES, which would still allow some trade in their products but would require export certificates and monitoring to ensure the species’ survival is not being threatened by the limited trade.

The politics of survival

The species currently protected or prohibited from international trade by CITES are mainly terrestrial. Yet the oceans are the last remaining habitat in which wild animals are hunted in large numbers for human consumption, and the international community is beginning to recognise the need to navigate the heated political waters of regulating trade in the wildlife found there.

All the marine species up for CITES listing – the eight sharks along with red and pink corals and Atlantic bluefin tuna are often exported from the countries’ waters where they are fished. CITES, therefore, has a unique and key role to play in securing these species’ recovery and survival.

But it will not be smooth sailing at Doha.

Pikitch recalled how previous proposals on porbeagle and spiny dogfish were discussed but ultimately failed at the last CITES meeting in 2007 at The Hague.

Conservationists are more optimistic this time around, but convincing the two-thirds of the 175 countries that are party to CITES – the threshold needed for a listing to pass – will still be a difficult task.

Some countries will be particularly difficult to get on board.

“I think it’s very clear China and Japan will not support protection for these shark species,” said Rand, though he says “there’s a lot of education that’s been going in China.”

On Tuesday, the Maldives announced it was making its territorial waters a shark sanctuary and banned all imports and exports of shark fins. The timing was conspicuously close to the start of the CITES meeting and was seen as giving an extra boost to advocates of limiting trade in sharks.

The Maldives join Palau, which took the same step in September when they announced a ban shark fishing in their waters, creating what Rand described as a “sanctuary the size of Texas where sharks are free to roam.”

“There’s a lot going on for global shark conservation right now and I think it’s really picked up significantly in the last year,” he said.

Palau has been at the vanguard of this movement and the only country that has openly been a proponent of all the sharks CITES proposals.

The U.S., too, has been beginning to take a stand. The Shark Conservation Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives last March and is currently awaiting a vote in the Senate.

It would prohibit U.S. fishing vessels from having any shark fins on board that are not naturally attached to a shark carcass, thus banning the practices of slicing off a fin at sea and throwing the carcass back. It would also take measures against trade with countries that do not have similar a law.

The U.S., which has the largest exclusive economic zone off its coasts, has also helped lead an effort to implement similar measures at the regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) that regulate fishing in international waters.

Much of the reason for an uptick in shark conservation may be economic. Recent studies have found sharks are worth more alive and wild than dead.

According to the conservation group Oceana, reef sharks in the Bahamas have been estimated to be worth 250,000 dollars in tourism spending and only 50 dollars when caught.

A 2006 Australian government study found that 25 percent of the spending by visitors to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is directly attributable to the opportunity to see sharks. And a study from James Cook University, also in Australia, found that a gray reef shark in the Maldives was worth 3,300 dollars a year in tourism, as opposed to 32 dollars when sold by a fisherman.

But the justification for protecting sharks goes deeper than economic costs and benefits. As an apex predator, sharks are critical for maintaining the health of the oceans and the heath of the populations of fish and other species that are a major part of human diets.

As human population expands and fish stocks are overfished, sharks have been increasingly targeted as sources of protein and income. The way that targeting will cascade down the food chain is still unkown.

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