Game changer for sharks and rays?

Image: Janos / Adobestock

A school of bonnethead hammerhead sharks swim off a coral reef on the island of Coiba, 25 kilometers off the Pacific coast of Panama. Slowly they drift in the current at the edge of the reef where cooler water comes up from the depths. About 300 kilometers northwest of Coiba in a conference hall in Panama City: More than 2,000 people are debating in a large conference room, the only cooling comes from the air conditioning. It's about the future of the hammerhead shark, not just the shovelhead shark on the reef off Coiba, but also five other species in the family. Also on the agenda are 54 species from the ground shark family and 37 guitarfish.

The conference is the 19th Conference of the Parties to the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife, also known as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). The agreement has regulated international trade in endangered animal and plant species since 1973. The now 184 contracting states meet every three years and decide on amendments to the CITES agreement. The conference will take place in Panama City from November 14th to 25th. With Panama, the CITES conference has a host this year who wants to become a pioneer in shark protection.

After just four days of negotiations, a historic preliminary decision was made on Thursday last week: the contracting states agreed that all ground and hammerhead shark species under discussion, as well as the family of guitarfish, should be included in Appendix II of the CITES agreement. The more than 100 species are to be protected from overfishing. Putting such large groups of species under protection is a milestone for the protection of marine animals. However, the decision will not be final until it is confirmed by the plenum of the contracting states next Friday, November 25th.

Sharks threatened by overfishing

If left at that, however, it would be a real game changer for shark and ray survival. Because they urgently need better protection: After amphibians, the cartilaginous fish are the second most threatened group of vertebrates. A third of the more than 1200 species are now threatened. The species crisis under water is particularly extreme. A study using baited camera traps showed that 20 percent of the more than 1,200 coral reefs surveyed had no or hardly any sharks.

The main cause of the collapse in shark and ray populations is clear: overfishing. An estimated 100 million sharks and rays are killed by humans each year worldwide. Their meat including fins serves us as food, their liver oil and cartilage end up as raw materials in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries, their skin is processed into leather. According to one analysis, the stocks of 18 oceanic species alone have shrunk by more than 70 percent since 1970 because fishing has increased 18-fold over the same period.

Hammerhead sharks, for which the contracting states have passed stricter regulations by consensus, are mainly fished for their fins. When made into shark fin soup, they are considered a specialty in Asia. This also explains why Asian countries in particular are mobilizing against better protection for sharks and rays at CITES CoP19. Above all, they put forward one (wrong) argument: as soon as sharks are included in Appendix II of the CITES agreement, they can no longer be fished commercially. But this is not the case, there are only certain rules for the international trade of these species. For retailers, for example, it must be ensured that the removal does not further endanger the respective stocks. The respective countries must take appropriate management measures to conserve their shark and ray stocks.

It was real goose bumps for me when the decisions to better protect over 90 percent of all traded shark and ray species were made. At the beginning of my career it would have been unthinkable sharks notorious. According to the 1975 film Jaws, only a dead shark was good. Sharks just didn't have a lobby. The fact that things are different today is also thanks to the tireless educational work on sharks. They are just as irreplaceable as rays. They keep ecosystems intact, ensuring healthy fish stocks on which millions of people depend. And no matter whether in the colorful reefs in Panama or in the North Sea: They are simply fascinating, unique creatures that have already survived five mass extinctions in the history of the earth. It would be a shame if they fell victim to overfishing now. Until the final vote at the CITES conference next Friday, it is now important that a large number of contracting states do not allow themselves to be swayed behind the scenes.

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