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Protecting sharks: Explaining CITES regulations

Updated: Dec 19, 2022

Do you know what it means when we say an animal is considered endangered or critically endangered? Does this status guarantee some kind of protection for the species? And what about animals that are listed under CITES? What does that mean exactly? We believe that the knowledge about these fundamental conservation terms leads to a better and more educated discussion among everybody who cares about the future of the shark populations.

Lucia Baranova photograph of sharks

Let’s start this article with what it means if an animal is classified as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. The truth is that the classification itself does not guarantee any binding steps to be taken by the governments.

But the classification is important, it monitors the numbers of populations and when a species is classified as endangered, governments and international organizations CAN work to protect it.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the best-known worldwide conservation status system. The official term "threatened" is a grouping of three categories:

  • Critically endangered: Extremely high risk of extinction in the wild

  • Endangered: Higher risk of extinction in the wild

  • Vulnerable: High risk of extinction in the wild

The definitions of the three threatened categories are based on five criteria: population reduction rate, geographic range, population size, population restrictions, and probability of extinction.

It’s important to know that if an animal is classified as THREATENED, there is still a long way until it is PROTECTED.

On the national level, it is up to each country to introduce laws banning the catch and sale of threatened species of sharks. Such laws are also very effective, as they are overseen directly by the authorities of the country and within their territory.

When it comes to the international level and the introduction from the high seas, one of the most known treaties and tools of regulation is CITES - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It is an international agreement between governments of different states. CITES has 184 parties.

It aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species. Animals and plants are listed under the three Appendices of CITES according to how threatened they are by international trade. Depending to the appendix, international trade is regulated among the states that are a part of the CITES agreement.

This means:

  • An animal must be included in one of the appendices of CITES so that international trade with it can be regulated by CITES rules.

  • CITES is regulating only international trade and introduction from the high seas – it does not primarily regulate national catches and trade within each state (but it affects both, of course)

  • It does not ban catching the animals that are listed in the database, even if they are considered threatened species.

The three CITES appendices are:

Appendix I - Species threatened with extinction. Trade of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances, for example for scientific research. No shark species are listed in this appendix, except for the sawfish – a shark-like fish belonging to the ray family.

Appendix II - Species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. All sharks are listed under this CITES appendix.

Appendix III - Species included at the request of a Party of CITES that already regulates trade in the species, and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation. No sharks are listed in this appendix.

So, what shark and ray species are now listed under CITES?

Silky shark, Oceanic whitetip shark, Scalloped hammerhead, Great hammerhead, Smooth hammerhead, Thresher sharks, Basking shark, White shark, Shortfin mako shark, Longfin mako shark, Porbeagle, Whale shark, Guitarfishes, Wedgefishes and Manta, and Mobula rays.

These shark species under CITES can be internationally traded when an export permit is granted. A similar permit must be obtained when it comes to the introduction from the sea of such species (sharks caught on high seas).

What is necessary to obtain such a permit?

Most importantly, the permit is granted when the export/introduction from the sea would not be detrimental to the survival of the species. This is called a Non-Detriment Finding (NDF). CITES Parties are not obligated to share their NDFs publicly. The permits are issued by the management and scientific authorities from the given CITES Party. These authorities issue a study on the populations, reproduction, conservation status, etc., and make their decision accompanied by recommendations (mainly quotas for the next 12-18 months).

CITES can be a very effective tool for regulating international trade with sharks and shark products, such as their fins. To help the effectiveness of the CITES regulations, it is necessary to:

All members have to abide by the rules set out in CITES and issue the permits only in cases when it would not be detrimental to the survival of the species. In some countries, the non-detriment findings are being issued even for endangered species - Thresher sharks, Great Hammerheads, Scalloped Hammerheads, etc.

It is also necessary to carry out permit checks efficiently and to identify the species of the shark product at border controls, although this is understandably a very difficult activity for the custom duty officers. Imagine trying to identify different shark species in hundreds of kilos of dried shark fins. We would like to dedicate a separate article to this issue, where we will address the problem of the illegal shark products trade.

But most importantly, it is essential to put as many shark species on the CITES list as possible. It is a sad fact that many shark species are already Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, as a result of unsustainable fishing mortality driven at least partly by international trade demand for their products. The more shark species are on the list, the less amount there will be of both, legal and illegal trade.

EDIT: On 25th November 2022 the CITES approved to list ALL REQUIEM SHARKS AND ALL HAMMERHEAD SHARKS under the CITES regulations. This huge step will help to reduce both legal and illegal trade with shark products.

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