Countries have agreed to protect more than a dozen shark species at risk of extinction, in a move aimed at conserving some of the ocean’s most awe-inspiring creatures who have themselves become prey to commercial fishing and the Chinese appetite for shark fin soup.
Three proposals covering the international trade of 18 types of mako sharks, wedgefishes and guitarfishes each passed with a needed two-thirds majority in a committee of the World Wildlife Conference known as CITES on Sunday.
“Today we are one step closer to protecting the fastest shark in the ocean, as well as the most threatened,” said Jen Sawada, who directs The Pew Charitable Trusts shark conservation work.
The move isn’t final but is a key sign before an official decision at its plenary this week.
Conservationists applauded and exchanged hugs after the tallies. Opponents variously included China, Iceland, Japan, Malaysia and New Zealand. The U.S. voted against the mako shark measure, but supported the other two.
Rima Jabado, a shark expert and lead scientist of the Gulf Elasmo project, said many of the species included in the CITES proposals are classified as “critically endangered.” Jabado said there has been an 80% decline in the number of wedgefishes, based on available data. Like giant guitarfishes, the enigmatic wedgefish has an elongated triangle-shaped head and can be found in oceans in Southeast Asia, the Arabian Sea and East Africa.
Makos are the world’s fastest sharks, reaching speeds of up to 80 mph (nearly 130 kph). But they often get caught up in the nets of fishing trawlers hunting for tuna.
Jabado said some species of sharks and rays are becoming so difficult to find in the wild that scientists only often see them when they are on sale at local fish markets.
“It makes you wonder how many are actually left out there,” Jabado said, lamenting that some species are only seen every few years. “How are we ever going to save these species if we only see them when fishermen bring them in?”
She added that even if actions are taken now, it will be decades before shark populations start to recover, since most species take years to reach sexual maturity and don’t have many young.
Maria Cheng reported from London.