Sharks and rays receive better protection for international trade

Conservationists are hailing what they call an historic agreement to give greater protection to sharks threatened by illegal trading practices. The agreement, which took effect Sunday, puts several shark and manta ray species under the protection of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, known as CITES.

This theme music from Jaws, the 1975 Hollywood thriller about a killer shark, has terrified generations of moviegoers. John Scanlon, CITES secretary-general, thinks the bad rap sharks are getting is unfair.

“The reality is the number of shark attacks are extremely low. The risk is extremely low, but it is a very hard profile.  Scientifically, you know, you need sharks. You need the top-end predators. They are a critical part of the eco-system. And, the fact that something poses a risk to human beings is no reason to be rid of it,” he said.

Sharks play an important role in maintaining a healthy ocean by eating other fish. While they are preying on smaller fish, conservationists say human sharks are preying on these undersea animals for their fins, meat, leather, liver oil and cartilage.

CITES says the demand for shark fins in Asia is the greatest driver of overfishing and population declines. Shark’s-fin soup is a delicacy served at important events, such as weddings and banquets in Asia.

On the other end of the eating spectrum, it notes fish and chips meals are made from shark meat in Europe. The gill plates of manta rays are highly valued as a health tonic in southern China.  Conservation groups agree that, instead of being beneficial, gill plates may be harmful to human health because they contain arsenic, cadmium, and other lethal metals.

The head of CITES scientific services, David Morgan, says profits from the unregulated trade of these products are huge. Unfortunately, he said this is leading to overfishing and an 80 percent decline in several species.

“That is a substantial decline. It has resulted in local extinctions. One of the species, the hammerhead shark, the scalloped hammerhead shark has become virtually extinct in the Mediterranean Sea. The population decline there is estimated at 99.9 percent. So it has resulted in local extinctions in some places. What can we do to recover them? Well, they need time and space to recover. … We need to reduce the fishing pressure on these species,” he said.

The new CITES agreement provides stronger protection for five shark species and all manta ray species whose survival is under threat. The agreement does not ban international trade, but it regulates the trade to make sure these endangered species are being harvested sustainably and legally.

Several of the species are relevant for Costa Rica, said a local environmental organization. The three listed species of hammerhead sharks (scalloped hammerhead, smooth hammerhead, great hammerhead) were proposed by Costa Rica, Honduras and Brazil at an international convention last year, according to the Programa Restauración Tiburones y Tortugas Marinas.

The oceanic white tip shark, a highly valued species in the international shark fin trade and once an abundant catch in Costa Rican fisheries, has now become a rare catch, and its commerce has been banned by the Inter American Tropical Tuna Commission, the organization said.

Manta rays are common in Costa Rica waters, and even though it is not acknowledged as a targeted catch, the truth is that an export market exists for ray meat, the composition by species of which is unknown, it added.

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