BANGKOK, Thailand, March 7, 2013 (ENS) – Every year in commercial fisheries around the world some 100 million sharks die, according to scientific findings released today in the peer-reviewed journal “Marine Policy.” In Bangkok, representatives of 178 governments will decide within the next week whether or not to protect the most vulnerable shark species.

Dried shark fins for sale in a Hong Kong market, January 2013 (Photo by Oleg)

Dried shark fins for sale in a Hong Kong market, January 2013 (Photo by Oleg)

Some years the number of sharks killed in fisheries is as high as 273 million, some years the number drops to 63 million – in any case it adds up to a lot of shark fin soup.

Sharks grow slowly and reproduce late in life, so the rate of killing is rapidly exceeding the birth rate, and sharks of many species are being pushed into extinction. Sharks are biologically vulnerable and in high demand.

Boris Worm

Dr. Boris Worm (Photo courtesy Dalhousie University)

“Biologically, sharks simply can’t keep up with the current rate of exploitation and demand,” said Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada and lead author of the study that arrived at the 100 million annual death toll.

The estimates in the study were calculated by adding landed catch data reported to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to estimates of unreported landings, finned sharks, and other discards of dead sharks.

“Our analysis shows that about one in 15 sharks gets killed by fisheries every year,” said Worm. “Protective measures must be scaled up significantly in order to avoid further depletion and the possible extinction of many shark species.”

In Bangkok, wildlife officials from 178 governments are considering proposals to regulate international trade in three shark species and one species of manta ray to protect them and prevent their extinction.

Delegates to the 16th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, now meeting in Bangkok must consider whether to extend trade protection to the oceanic whitetip shark, porbeagle shark and three species of hammerhead sharks and all manta rays.

The United States, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt Honduras, Mexico and more than 25 other countries have proposed to list shark, ray and sawfish species under CITES. If approved by two-thirds of the governments voting, the listing could help control the largely unregulated international trade in these species and products made from their parts.

Conservationist groups have been lobbying persistently to persuade governments of the importance of protection for these species.

manta ray reception

A giant balloon manta ray, top right, hangs over the reception held at the CITES convention in Bangkok to publicize the manta ray proposal. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiation Bulletin)

“We commend the leadership of the United States and other government sponsors in requesting these essential measures to control and monitor international trade in these shark and ray species, and we implore other governments to vote in their favor,” said Dr. Cristian Samper, president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo in New York City.

“These taxa have suffered alarming declines from unregulated or insufficiently regulated fisheries and are in high demand for international commercial markets. There is a desperate need for trade controls to manage that demand and its impact on these vulnerable fishes,” said Samper.

Another species, the freshwater sawfish, is proposed for uplisting from Appendix II to Appendix I, which prohibits all commercial international trade.

In order to be adopted, the proposals will need approval from two-thirds of the governments voting. Currently listed are only the whale shark, basking shark, great white shark, and seven sawfishes.

“The high demand for sharks in international trade is driving massive over-exploitation,” says Dr. Colman O’Criodain, a policy analyst specializing in the international wildlife trade with the World Wildlife Fund and WWF International.

“This trade is directed toward the luxury market, not a subsistance market,” he told reporters on a conference call. “Growing wealth in China is reflected in growing demand for shark fin soup, once the food of a tiny elite.”

The gill plates of manta rays are in such demand for a soup reputed to have medicinal properties that CITES governments are considering a proposal to regulate the manta ray trade.

The Pew Charitable Trusts is calling for immediate action to increase safeguards for some of the most vulnerable species.

“There is nothing other than CITES that regulates trade in these vulnerable species,” said Dr. Susan Lieberman, director of international policy, The Pew Charitable Trusts, on a teleconference with reporters.

shark NGO

Demian Chapman and Debra Abercrombie, Pew Charitable Trusts, giving information on identifying fins of vulnerable sharks species at their booth at the CITES conference in Bangkok. (Photo courtesy ENB)

“Proposals will require two-thirds of the governments voting,” she said, “a high bar but we are optomistic these proposals will be adopted.”

Many other conservation groups have been working together to secure CITES listings for shark and ray species: Deutsche Elasmobranchier-Gesellschaft, Humane Society International, Project AWARE Foundation, Shark Advocates International, the Shark Trust and Wildlife Conservation Society, with the support of Oceans 5.

Delegates will vote on the shark, ray and sawfish proposals before March 17 when the conference closes, not to reopen for two to three years.

While some sharks are receiving protection through national and international agreements, conservationists and scientists want to see more species protected by law or regulation.

Some suggest that a tax on the export and import of shark fins could also help curb demand and generate income for domestic shark fisheries management.

“The findings are alarming, but there is hope,” said Samuel Gruber of the University of Miami, a study co-author. “Existing regulations are a great start but we must ensure they are adequately enforced.”

“More nations must invest in sustainable shark fisheries management,” Gruber said. “This means introducing catch limits, trade regulation and other protective measures for the most vulnerable species and those that move across international boundaries.”

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