April 2010


Endangered Sharks, Species Remain Unprotected

Endangered Sharks species remain unprotected after Global Convention

Endangered species: The decision not to protect several shark species from being hunted for their fins has caused anger among scientists and environmentalists.

A UN backed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) recently decided against protecting five breeds of shark highly sought for their prized fins.

Those facing extinction through hunting include three types of hammerhead shark, the oceanic whitetip and the spiny dogfish. All are used in the Chinese delicacy shark fin soup, while the spiny dogfish is also sold to fish and chip shops in Britain and across Europe. Once caught, the sharks have their fins cut off and are dumped back into the ocean, often still alive, because their meat is not worth enough for fishermen to sell on.

The 175 nation conference met for 12 days in Doha, Qatar, to vote on measures which often pitted conservation against commerce. The defeat of proposed new trade restrictions to protect the sharks has been blamed on Japanese led opposition supported by other Asian nations who profit from catching, trading or consuming the delicacy.

Calls for the species to be protected were championed by the US and backed by Europe, Australia and several Arab and African countries. They were also joined by the tiny Pacific nation of Palau, which last year created the first ever shark sanctuary. After the decision, a statement from Palau's president, Johnson Toribiong, read: 'We must admit when the desires of man have outstripped the bounty of Mother Nature.'

Fidele Ruzigandekwe, director of conservation for Rwanda, which also backed the proposals, added: 'Science has been set aside for politics. It's proven that shark populations have diminished and they warrant protection, yet most proposals were rejected. People are not properly informed and the information is being distorted because of commercial interests.'

Hong Kong imports up to 10 million kilograms of fins a year, which results in the deaths of 73 million sharks, according to a recent report by marine conservation organisation Oceana, there are also significant markets in Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, the US, Yemen, India, Japan, Mexico and Europe.

The fins are supplied by fishermen from 87 countries, of which Spain and Norway are the largest, but Britain, France, Portugal and Italy are also major players. Each fin can fetch more than £850, while the soup can sell for more than £65 per bowl. The market has been growing by five per cent each year, with increasing demand from middle class Chinese families who have become wealthier during the country's economic boom.

The proposed measures would have regulated the trade for the first time, forcing countries to record the amount of sharks they catch as well as tracking their imports and exports.

'Once again Cites has failed to listen to the scientists,' says Glenn Sant, global marine programme co-ordinator for Traffic International, the wildlife trade monitoring network. 'The decision not to list all of these sharks is a conservation catastrophe for these species. Populations have declined by more than 90 per cent in some areas, many of them caught illegally and destined to end up in the shark fin trade. They are targeted because of their high value.'

The Japanese argued trade restrictions were not the answer and would be difficult to apply. Masanori Miyahara, chief counsellor of the Fisheries Agency of Japan, told delegates: 'This is not about trade issues but fisheries enforcement. Poaching is a big problem and small scale long liners are chasing sharks all over the world.'

China said it would be 'impossible' to tell apart regulated and unregulated shark species. It refused to discuss the growing demand for shark fin soup but said new rules would put an unnecessary strain on customs officials.

There was, however, better news for one shark species, Porbeagle sharks are resident off the British coast all year round and can grow to more than 2.5m, meaning they are often mistaken for great whites. Their numbers have decreased by 80 per cent in the Atlantic Ocean due to demand for their high value meat, fins and oil, but the species should benefit from new trade regulations.

 'Porbeagle sharks have finally received the trade protections they so desperately needed,' says Oceana wildlife scientist Rebecca Greenberg. 'It will provide international trade data essential to Porbeagle shark population assessments. Without trade restrictions, these shark species will be pushed towards extinction.'


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