Shark conservation is not off to a good start at CITES

The first shark conservation proposal at CITES has been defeated. This was not a proposed appendix II listing that I wrote about yesterday, but rather a nonbinding measure that “called for increased transparency in the shark trade and more research into the threat posed to sharks by illegal fishing” (from the AP article linked to above). If a non-binding measure that doesn’t actually ban any trade in shark products can’t pass, that’s not a good sign. Why did some countries vote against this non-binding measure to support research and increase transparency?

“China and Russia argued that shark populations aren’t suffering. Japan insisted that current measures in place are more than adequate. Developing countries like Libya and Morocco complained that any effort to protect sharks would damage the economies of poor fishing nations and burden them with expensive enforcement requirements” (also from the AP article linked to above).

Let’s break down these arguments.

1) Shark populations aren’t suffering. That’s patently ridiculous. All the scientific evidence points to large declines in the populations of many species of sharks. Fisheries landings in legally-managed shark fisheries are falling (or have already fallen so far that the fishery has been abandoned). Fishery-independent monitoring surveys worldwide show large declines in shark populations. It’s pretty hard for me to take someone seriously if their argument is that “sharks are doing just fine, they don’t need any protection”.

2) Current protection measures are adequate. See above. If populations of so many species are declining this rapidly, current protection measures are not adequate. Also, what protection measures is Japan referencing? In large parts of the world, there aren’t any.

3) Protecting sharks hurts poor fishermen. I actually agree with this one. Lots of desperately poor people around the world are able to feed their families as a result of fishing for sharks, and without that income, they will be in big trouble. However, the loss of sharks can destabilize food chains which can hurt even more fishermen, and lack of management will mean that this source of income will disappear soon anyway. Also, you can basically use this argument against any conservation effort.

4) Here’s a final thought. This proposal was for a non-binding resolution to study how illegal fishing hurts sharks and to call for transparency in the shark finning trade and didn’t actually affect legal shark commerce in any way whatsoever, which makes the arguments used by these nations to counter it a little bizarre. Either these countries were practicing their arguments against the appendix II listings I wrote about yesterday, or they are actually claiming that we shouldn’t interfere with a large-scale illegal and behind-closed-doors fishing industry on the basis of jobs. I’m sorry, but as sympathetic as I am to the plight of the fishermen in today’s heavily-regulated ocean, you just can’t convince me that we shouldn’t try to stop illegal and unregulated fishing.


UPDATE: Lesley Rochat has the final votes tallied on this proposal:

“Supporters included South Africa, the EU, and the USA, but the vote results were 52 in favour, 36 against and 11 abstentions, thus missing the two-thirds required to be accepted, and so the document was rejected.”

UPDATE: A statement from Marie Levine, the President of the Shark Research Institute:

“The document defeated yesterday was an overview of shark species of concern to the parties drafted by the animals committee in 2007, The debate was useful because it spotlighted those parties who may oppose the shark proposals and they voiced their concerns about current species under consideration. This allows us to address their concerns before the vote on the shark proposals. We are still optimistic.”


  1. Sam · March 17, 2010

    Could link to (or list on here) how the countries voted?

    Also, how do you increase transparency in an industry that’s already running illegally in some countries? There’d have to be a steep punishment for not reporting where all fins came from, steeper than the punishment for finning illegally in the first place. I’m pretty sure Costa Rica at least has finning banned. But for companies buying from Costa Rican finners, saying to increase transparency in the finning industry is like saying we’re going to increase transparency in the crystal meth industry. Minus the meth addicts.

    Or maybe I’m way off-base?

    • WhySharksMatter · March 17, 2010

      With 175 voting countries, a list of who voted for what would be somewhat unwieldy.

      There are definitely ways to make the industry more transparent. Right now, independent inspectors and observers aren’t involved in many steps (in some cases, they aren’t involved at all). It’s possibly to use them (along with DNA barcoding techniques) to certify that a given shark fin came from a place where it is legal to practice finning.

    • Sam · March 17, 2010

      52 + 36 +11 =/= 175. I just figured there’d be a list somewhere. I’ll comment with a link if I find one.

      That makes sense, though. I guess I was thinking more straightforward than that.

      And the Japanese government denial of the data seems a lot more “Holocaust-denier” to me than anything. In the face of overwhelming proof, they’re sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling over the top of it. The reason I asked about a list was to get an idea of how many against or abstained votes can be reasonably attributed to Japanese financial influence in the area.

  2. Christine · March 17, 2010

    To say that shark populations, especially those species that are commercially traded and therefore addressed by these conservation initiatives, are not suffering is insulting – not only to the scientists that have worked so hard to painstakingly tease apart the trends, but also to the fishers and observers that spent their precious time collecting & reporting the data, the taxpayers that supported the science, and the governments that, what, don’t know how to read?

    I have talked to fin distributors that acknowledge that shark populations are being decimated. They say that their governments don’t care – “it’s a slap on the wrist for posessing and selling endangered species” one man said. Because the valuable sharks are fished out throughout Asia they have to keep finding new fin sources – like north Africa. One said, those [North African] fishers are so poor, I can pay them almost nothing and sell the fins for thousands. When asked why one man is holding on to some of the most valuable fins on the market and hasn’t sold them yet, he replied that he’s “waiting for them to go extinct b/c then they’ll be worth a lot more and he’ll be able to retire comfortably”.

  3. devil's advocate · March 21, 2010

    1) in regards to “sharks aren’t suffering:” there is compelling evidence that shark populations are declining, but not relatively so compared with the majority of major fisheries species, thus indicating that fishing of all species should be scaled back (and not only apex predators)

    2) in regards to “current protection measures are adequate:” this is a global question regarding local stocks; it is not feasible to blindly accept that protections in one area are protective of populations in another area. this is a fallacious argument predicated upon the idea that one approach can cover the entire ocean.

    3) in regards to “protecting sharks hurts poor fishermen:” I actually agree with this to the extent that fishermen are unwilling to put in the time to fish for less-than-optimal-CPUE species. this is a function of demand and not to be descended upon their heads any more than excess taxes on cancer drugs.

    4) in regards to “here’s a final thought:” the insinuative fallacious argument that countries voting against the ban you support by nature has to stem from support of illegal harvest is laughable on its face to be honest. the fact of the matter is that there are large-scale LEGAL trades in these materials in the far east and indo-pacific (they may be illegal by comparison to the US but that is far OUTSIDE the bounds of international law). your insinuation that all opposition to imposition of fishing regulations is opposed to conservation principles is insulting to any rational human being. I agree that further research is necessary, and stock assessments a vital part of establishing the presence or absence of overfishing. HOWEVER, that is not a decision reached by virtue of having a predisposed position toward shark conservation. that field is one of its own and not reflective of the standing of the scientific community which you attempt to channel to give your arguments merit.

    • WhySharksMatter · March 21, 2010

      “indicating that fishing of all species should be scaled back (and not only apex predators)”

      Your overall attitude seems to indicate a belief that I disagree with your statement. I don’t. There is widespread overfishing occurring worldwide and I think it needs to be stopped.

      However, this particular CITES proposal deals with shark conservation, so I talked about shark conservation. There are other problems in the world that I didn’t mention, but they are irrelevant to this particular issue.

      I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you are trying to say at all with #2 or #3. Cancer drugs? Seriously, what are you talking about?

      As for #4… If you actually read the post before calling me insulting to rational beings, you might realize that the particular proposal that was shot down has nothing at all to do with a ban on shark products. This proposal was to fund research about the effects of illegal fishing on sharks.

      Yes, I think it’s reasonable to say that if you are against stopping illegal fishing and against transparency in an international trade infamous for illegal fishing, then you are for illegal fishing. There was absolutely no economic impact to legal trade associated with this proposal. None. Zero.

      Did you ever consider that my “predisposed opinion toward shark conservation” comes from years of scientific study? I don’t study sharks because I think we should protect them, I think we should protect them because I study them.

Comments are closed.