A big year for shark and ray conservation


This is a big year for sharks at the COP19 in Panama, as more than 60 species are being proposed for listing on CITES.


Sharks are traded globally for their meat, fins, cartilage, and increasingly for liver oil, which is used to produce squalene for cosmetics and other uses.

The trade of shark products is complex, and we are only beginning to understand how they move throughout global markets. What is clear, however, is that the trade is leading to big declines in shark and ray populations across the globe, with more than 1/3 of shark species being threatened with extinction due to overfishing.


Avoiding too many technicalities, the purpose of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna And Flora) is to regulate the trade of species that are in danger of extinction. Every two to three years, the CITES parties, and the countries gather to review previous decisions and to make new proposals based on relevant information. This gathering is called the Conference of the Parties (COP), and next week, the 19th meeting of the COP will be held in Panama City, Panama.


This is a big year for sharks at the COP, as more than 60 species are being proposed for listing on CITES. The large number is because two of the proposals include a grouping of similar-looking species: 19 species of requiem sharks of the family Carcharhinidae and all hammerhead species of the Sphyrnidae family. Additionally, the remainder of the species in the Carcharhinidae family are proposed for listing as ‘lookalike’ species. This proposal is meant to bring the shark fin trade under stricter regulation.


In our region, the new listing would bring new protections to the Caribbean reef shark, which has shown big declines throughout its range. The bonnethead shark would also fall under this listing. If the lookalike requiem shark species are also listed, the new rules will apply to the vast majority of sharks currently traded in the Caribbean. While CITES does not regulate fishing practices, it would mean that countries exporting the meat and fins will be required to complete a Non-Detriment Finding (NDF) to legally trade the products.


An NDF is how a country or Party proves that a CITES Appendix II or III species can be sustainably exported. NDFs help Parties to consolidate all the information on the biology, threats, management, and population status of the species to determine if the export of the species products falls within CITES rules and meets the criteria for species persistence. In the past, this has been accomplished manually with oodles of paperwork and reference manuals and was often a long and exhausting experience. In 2019, with support from the German government, MarAlliance enabled the streamlining of the process by creating an automated template that the end users could modify themselves. Colleagues from Blue Resources Trust, an NGO based in Sri Lanka, built upon the template to produce a user-friendly online tool, reducing the time needed to complete an NDF. The template is tailored specifically for sharks and rays and has already been successfully adopted and implemented by several countries.


At MarAlliance we also create new knowledge by monitoring the abundance and characteristics of species of sharks and rays in the key sites where we work. In Panama, for example, we have trained local fishermen in communities around Coiba National Park, Darien, Bocas del Toro, and Guna Yala Comarca to help us at sea and engage our local communities to obtain information on sightings of important species. We share this knowledge in many different formats, for example through the IUCN shark specialist group to help inform international policy like CITES. Through this, we hope to contribute to the work with our colleagues toward an outcome that will support the rebuilding of populations of these iconic species for generations to come.

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