Preventing a Future without SharksSharks may not be in the spotlight as much as dolphins, pandas or tigers are, but their current plight deserves just as much attention.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are around 468 shark species in the world, and 74 of these are listed as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. Scientists have reported steep drops in shark populations worldwide in recent years. For example, in some studies conducted in the Atlantic Ocean, during the last 20 years, the number of Oceanic whitetip sharks has dropped by up to 70 percent. Since the 1980s, Hammerhead shark populations have dropped a frightening 90 percent, while Porbeagle shark numbers have dropped over 70 percent over the past 40 to 50 years. The situation is dire.
Do declines in shark populations affect the world’s wider marine environment? Certainly, says Tracy Tsang, WWF-Hong Kong’s Senior Programme Officer, Shark.
“As the top predator in the ocean, sharks are very important in maintaining a balance in marine ecosystems. If shark populations are exhausted, the ocean food chain will be disrupted. The affected viability of commercial fisheries around the world may result in a lower abundance, poorer quality and higher prices for the most popular types of seafood we consume.”
Trade in shark products has had a negative impact on shark populations. The demand for sharks – in particular their fins – has been one of the main drivers of global shark fishery. Although there is no shark fishery in Hong Kong, the city is notorious for being the world’s “shark fin capital”: Tiny Hong Kong accounts for an astonishing 50 percent of the global shark fin trade annually. According to the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department, around 8,285 metric tonnes of shark fin products were imported into Hong Kong in 2012 from around 80 countries. WWF is encouraged by the decline on imports of shark fins into Hong Kong when compared with 2011, when the figure was around 10,000 metric tonnes, even though these figures may also be the result of changes in how the Hong Kong government documents its trade.
The world is beginning to respond to this shark crisis. In March 2013, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) met in Bangkok. The Conference of the Parties (CoP 16) formally added the Oceanic whitetip, Scalloped hammerhead, Great hammerhead, Smooth hammerhead and the Porbeagle sharks to CITES Appendix II.
This decision, which has been ratified, means that these species and their products (for example shark fins) can be commercially traded internationally, but under strict regulations. As such, the Hong Kong government is obliged to amend its Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance (Cap. 586) – local legislation which gives effect to CITES in Hong Kong – to bring it into line with the CITES requirements. Tsang says: “To make sure Hong Kong strictly follows the CITES decision, WWF is calling on the government to conduct the scientific identification of randomly sampled shark fins, using DNA testing, for example. This would ensure the shark products are traded under CITES protection.”
Hope is beginning to bloom at the local level as well. In the past few years, global shark conservation work has begun to receive a positive response from airlines, which have taken a leadership role in regulating the shark fin trade. Since 2011, more and more airlines have announced bans on carrying shark fins or shark fin products due to concerns over the plight of sharks globally. Equally encouraging is the fact that participation in WWF’s shark conservation programmes has continued to grow. There are now 115 caterers, including five-star hotels and Chinese chain restaurants, on board with our “Alternative Shark-free Menu” programme. Participation numbers in our “No Shark Fin Corporate Pledge” have risen to 154. After successfully receiving support from the catering industry and corporations, WWF believes that now is the right time to call for the general public to say “NO” to shark fin to create a collective voice to protect sharks.
Even with the recent increase in international cooperation through CITES, shark conversation is an ongoing and evolving process. Much work remains to be done: These newly protected sharks, together with the Great white shark, Basking shark and Whale shark – which have already been listed in Appendix II – make up only a small percentage of the world’s shark species. Many sharks, the wild populations of which are under great threat, are still not monitored by CITES.
“As sharks are particularly vulnerable due to their biological characteristics of maturing late and having few young,” Tsang concludes, “CITES and the signatory governments must speed up their work by regulating the shark trade before it is too late.”
What is CITES?
CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, came into existence in 1975. At the time, there were concerns that international trade was endangering numerous wildlife species. It was necessary to foster international collaboration and cooperation in order to ensure that trade was controlled and sustainable. Today, the role of CITES remains vital to international conservation efforts.
CITES regulates international species trade through the inclusion of species in one of three Appendices:
Appendix I: Species which cannot be traded internationally for primarily commercial purposes.
Appendix II: Species which can be traded internationally for commercial purposes, but within strict regulations, requiring determinations of sustainability and legality.
Appendix III: Species which are included at the request of a country, which then needs the cooperation of other countries to help prevent illegal exploitation.
Take action: I’m FINished with FINS!
Brunei brought good news to shark conservation in June 2013 – the country announced a nationwide ban on catching, landing or selling on the domestic market any shark species from the country’s waters, as well as the trade and import of all shark products. Brunei is the first country in Asia to take such actions.
This summer, WWF-Hong Kong is partnering with Shark Savers, WildAid, National Geographic and Nat Geo Wild to launch the “I’m FINished with Fins” campaign. Hong Kong’s most influential personalities, celebrities and corporate leaders are taking the lead to say “NO” to shark fin. It’s time for you to take action too, so make a pledge through the campaign’s website (finishedwithfins.org) and share it with your friends. With every pledge, we take another step forward to saving the sharks!