Sunday, March 17, 2013

Protecting Sharks: the two-edged sword that is CITES

This past week, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) concluded their 16th triennial Conference of the Parties (CoP16) with much fanfare among shark conservationists as 5 species of sharks and 2 species of rays were given recognition of status that could lead to a reduction in the commercial fishing for these animals.  However, before shark advocates break out the champagne, it's important to view the measures taken by CITES as steps in a long process and, in the interim, sharks and rays will continue to be taken.

Many of the steps taken by CITES represent a two-edged sword with good and bad elements on each side.  The 7 elasmobranch species were awarded an Appendix II status at CoP16.  Specifically, Appendix II states the following:

 "Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. It also includes so-called 'look-alike species', i.e. species of which the specimens in trade look like those of species listed for conservation reasons. International trade in specimens of Appendix-II species may be authorized by the granting of an export permit or re-export certificate. No import permit is necessary for these species under CITES (although a permit is needed in some countries that have taken stricter measures than CITES requires). Permits or certificates should only be granted if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild."

The good news is that an Appendix II rating recognizes that a particular plant or animal species may be at risk and therefore trade should be monitored through the issuing of export permits.  CITES does not require import permits from any of its 177 member nations when it comes to dealing in Appendix II species, but nations with commercial fleets involved in the taking of these species will be required to have export permits.

That is definitely a major improvement to the situation for the 7 shark and ray species because, before this determination, these animals were fair game for anyone.  (The species in question: oceanic whitetip shark; great, scalloped, and smooth hammerhead sharks; porbeagle shark; and 2 species of manta ray.)  While shark researchers and conservationists have been noting population declines for some time, either through empirical evidence or anecdotal accounts, CITES, as a major international body, had not formally acknowledged the predicament.  So, this constitutes a very big step forward.

Okay, so break out the bubbly, but don't have that second glass just yet.

Moving forward, CITES will need to be engaged in extensive monitoring of catches to determine whether numbers are being taken at sustainable levels (if you believe in sustainable catch levels of elasmobranchs, something in which I have considerable doubts).  A review of available data will be undertaken to determine baseline levels for each species and then ongoing monitoring of catch levels and estimated populations will be required to determine whether permits should be modified or restricted. 

In describing the decision as it regards the porbeagle shark, a shark that lost out to intense last minute pressure at CoP15 in 2010 but won Appendix II status at this current meeting, a CITES press release noted, "The proponents welcomed the impressive alliance of countries co-sponsoring the proposal and argued that requiring CITES export permits will ensure that international markets are supplied by fish from sustainably managed fisheries that keep accurate records." 

There are many in the ocean conservation community who have expressed concern as to how effectively the monitoring will be carried out, particularly by nations that opposed the new measures.  Of the nations in attendance, just over 90 nations voted in favor of the various shark and ray proposals and around 40 opposed.  So it was not overwhelming and there is concern as to whether opposing nations will drag their feet with the executing of fishery management monitoring of these species. 

In a recent post on Twitter, ocean conservationist Dr. Carl Safina said, "CITES votes to monitor global trade in several shark species.  It's a hard-won win.  But monitor does not mean stop."  Opposing nations, like Japan and China, took the position that national or regional monitoring of catch levels would be sufficient, that international regulations were not necessary.  Many viewed that as the "fox watching the hen house," but it is an argument that can be brought up in the future as these Appendix ratings are not permanent and subject to change at the next CoP meeting in 2016.

Should these sharks and rays be given an Appendix I status, as was the freshwater sawfish at CoP16, which mandates a complete prohibition in trade?  Some shark advocates think so, but for CITES to completely end trade in a particular species, unfortunately, the situation has to be pretty dire and, for sharks, that could mean teetering on the edge of extinction before any action is taken - which could be too late.

An Appendix I rating is often a difficult pill for CITES members to swallow because a complete prohibition goes against the fundamental mission of the organization, which is to sustain the trade in endangered species, not necessarily the species itself.  So, any Appendix I rating is always subject to later review and revision.

Another encouraging step taken at CoP16 was in regards to illegal trade: either violations by member nations or the poachers and illegal traders who ignore CITES regulations altogether.  Illegal shark fishing, elephant or rhinoceros hunting, and many other illegal activities are taking a significant toll.

CITES reported, "The first global meeting of wildlife enforcement networks took place alongside the main meeting to scale up regional enforcement capacity and coordination to respond to the serious threat posed to wildlife by criminal networks. Several events of the International Consortium to Combat Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) brought together Government Ministers, the world's Wildlife Enforcement Networks, the Asian Development Bank, chief justices, attorney generals, senior police and Customs, and enforcement officers to discuss transboundary wildlife crime."

We should all watch closely as to what are the resulting actions of the ICCWC as enforcement hampered by limited manpower, logistical, and financial resources has always been a major issue for many established conservation measures, including wildlife preserves and parks, marine protected areas, and other such sanctuaries.

Overall, this year, CITES and CoP16 proved to be much less of a disappointment to the conservation community than in previous years.  However, its actions of the past week, as positive as they were, represent just one building block of many that need to be put in place to ensure that natural resources - which are showing, more and more, the effects of mankind's voracious consumption - will be here for future generations.

Source: CITES press release

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