Protected Sharks on the Menu
Updated: Mar 12
The 'Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora', more commonly known as CITES, is a cooperative framework agreed upon by 186 nations. The goal it to control international trade of over-exploited species. Every three years, threatened species are assessed and (by popular vote amongst the nations) assigned to two appendices; CITES Appendix II and Appendix I. Species listed on Appendix II are only allowed to be traded internationally under permission from a permit, which ensures they are only extracted sustainably. Trade of any body part of species listed on Appendix I is completely prohibited. In total, 46 species of "Elasmobranchs" (sharks and rays) are now listed by CITES (Cardeñosa et al, 2018).
However, listing of a species by CITES does not necessarily mean that these animals are not still harvested in large numbers. Sharks, including those protected by CITES, are commonly fished for their fins because shark fin soup is an expensive delicacy in several Asian countries, where it is erroneously believed to have health benefits. It is estimated that as many as 100 million sharks are killed every year globally, the majority for their fins.
China is the largest global consumer of shark fins. An enormous trade hub in Hong Kong imports millions of tonnes of shark fins annually; 5,528,862 kg in 2015 alone!
A recent study investigating the shark fin trade in Hong Kong used genetic testing of shark products to determine which species of sharks were most commonly on sale in Hong Kong. Whilst they found that a wide variety of sharks were available, the species which were found most commonly year-to-year were:
blue shark (Prionace glauca),
silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis),
blacktip species complex (including Carcharhinus limbatus, C. tilstoni, C. leiodon, C. amblyrhynchos,
scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini),
smooth hammerheads (Sphyrna zygaena).
* CITES Listed
Both hammerhead species have been listed since 2013 and the silky shark has been listed since 2015 on CITES Appendix II. This study highlighted that it is likely that many CITES-listed species were still entering Hong Kong frequently and in large quantities (Cardeñosa et al, 2018).
The researchers explained that they were suspicious of whether nations were complying with the CITES reporting requirements because many nations which were known to previously export these species, were not amongst those to formally reported their trade. In fact, they found that only seven nations formally reported their fin trade with Hong Kong in 2017, despite it being known that a total of 82 nations traded with the Hong Kong hub on average every year! Of the top-5 nations importing fins into Hong Kong, only Singapore formally reported its CITES-listed shark exports and amongst the top-10 nations which produced the highest amount of shark products, only Mexico reported its CITES-listed shark species which were sold to Hong Kong in 2015 (Cardeñosa et al, 2018).
The burden of monitoring species and implementing CITES recommendations falls on the exporting country, but nations which import large amounts of shark products also have a responsibility to ensure regulations are enforced. As of 2016, the trade hub in Hong Kong had a grand total of 84 officials identifying and enforcing CITES regulations... for 5,000 metric tonnes annually imported.
China has invested in improving inspection capacity in Hong Kong because If CITES regulations cannot be adhered to, Hong Kong could face international trade sanctions. However, the scientists performing this study advised that further investment in CITES inspection is required in Hong Kong. They suggested that the system could be improved by employing additional inspectors, improving efficiency by centralising ports of entry for fins, conducting real-time DNA testing in the field, and targeting shipments from certain countries, which might pose a higher risk based upon recent historical landings. If these strategies could make it more difficult to import illegal fins, the threat of seizures at the border could promote sustainable sourcing of shark fins (Cardeñosa et al, 2018).
Cardeñosa D, Fields, AT Feldheim K, Shea SKH, Babcock EA, Zhang H, Fischer GA & Chapman DD (2018). CITES-listed sharks remain among the top species in the contemporary fin trade. Conservation Letters, 11, e12457. Access online.