The UN wildlife trade group shot down bids on Tuesday to regulate trade on two species of sharks threatened with extinction from overfishing, setting off backfire from angry conservation activists.
Millions of hammerhead and white-tip sharks are taken from their ocean habitats every year, mainly for the growing demand for sharkfin soup, a delicacy in Chinese communities around the world.
The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) rejected the US-sponsored proposals at the 13-day conference held in Doha. Supporters of the proposals are hoping for a second hearing on one or both proposals on Thursday, the final day of the conference.
Both species of shark were among the most common of the semi-coastal and open-water sharks just a few decades ago.
But overfishing of the sharks has led to an 80 percent global decline in hammerhead species and as much as a 90 percent drop in the Indian and Pacific oceans alone, according to experts.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the white-tip shark as critically endangered in the northwestern Atlantic, and vulnerable globally.
China voted against the hammerhead proposal, saying that even their well-trained fisheries officials had been unable to distinguish between fins once they were cut off. A Chinese delegate said that experience has shown that control of the species at borders would likely be unenforceable.
Japan was against both measures, arguing that management of shark populations should be left up to regional groups and not CITES.
Conservationists argue that fishing for sharks is not currently regulated. “The problem today is not there is serious mismanagement of trade in sharks, as for tuna, but that there is no management at all,” Sue Lieberman, policy director for the Washington-based Pew Environment Group, told the AFP news agency.
Another point they argue is that sharks are especially vulnerable because most species take years to mature and have very few young.
The proposals sought for a listing on CITES’ Appendix II which would require countries to monitor and report all export activity, and to prove that fishing is done in a manner that is sustainable.
Although the proposals were supported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as the secretariat of CITES, the bill lost due to a narrow margin on votes, angering conservationists.
“We see clearly now the Japanese motivation for opposing all these marine species proposals,” Anne Schroeer, an Madrid-based economist with Oceana, told AFP’s Marlowe Hood. “For the whales they say we are catching it traditionally. For the bluefin tuna, they say we are eating it. But for the sharks, there is nothing but pure economic interest.”
A proposal on Bluefin tuna regulation last week was voted down for Appendix I status, which would impose a total ban on cross-border trade. The fight was mainly between commercial interests and conservationists.
With sharks, there is business on both sides of the issue. Small island nations, and some bigger ones, rely on revenue from scuba-related tourism.
Two more species are scheduled for Appendix II listing votes on Tuesday: the porbeagle and spiny dogfish. Of the 64 species of open water shark species, almost a third face extinction, according to a report issued last June by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group.