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Rays of Hope

Humane Society International helps implement historic new protections for sharks and rays

All Animals magazine, Nov/Dec 2014

by Michael Sharp

Shark and ray populations have been in serious decline around the world. Click to enlarge the image for more details.

Demian Chapman stood at the front of a hotel meeting room, in the coastal Brazil city of Recife, and laid out the new challenge awaiting customs and border patrol agents around the world.

“It sounds,” he said, “very daunting.”

As of September, the agents must now monitor the trade in five shark species that have been granted historic new protections by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. To do that, authorities must be able to pick out a scalloped hammerhead fin or a porbeagle fin from the small mountains of various fins that are unloaded off ships or prepared for flights.

And so, Chapman—an assistant professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences—proceeded to give the roomful of environmental, enforcement and fisheries authorities hints on what to look for. The aptly named oceanic whitetip shark features a white marking on the rounded tops of his fins, like they’ve been dipped in paint. The hammerheads have very tall, skinny, light brown fins with a distinctive base. No CITES-protected species has black markings on its fins.

“To laypeople, you [think that] all fins look alike,” Chapman said, “but it turns out … they are actually quite different.”

In an effort to make the new protections all the more effective, Humane Society International has helped organize these workshops, traveling around the world to host or attend sessions in Brazil, Senegal, India, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates; another is scheduled for Colombia in November.

Tens of millions of sharks are killed annually to meet the demand for shark fin soup—an unsustainable rate that is driving some populations to near-extinction. Many are killed by the cruel practice of finning, in which fishermen cut the fins off a live shark, then dump the animal back into the water to die slowly.

“This is the first real tangible global protections that we’ve seen for sharks." -HSI's Rebecca Regnery

But in March 2013, for the first time in the 40-year history of CITES, Appendix II protections were extended to five commercially traded species of sharks—porbeagles, oceanic whitetips and three species of hammerheads— along with both species of manta rays. That means the trade in these species should now be strictly monitored to prevent populations from becoming further endangered. In some areas, the trade was immediately banned until the populations recover.

Advocates hope the measure will prove more effective than the previous patchwork of regional and national bans that some fishermen could work around by just going to the next country.

“This is the first real tangible global protections that we’ve seen for sharks,” says Rebecca Regnery, HSI deputy director. “All the CITES parties, which is 180 countries in the world, should abide by this.”

Many fisheries authorities have never had to enforce a CITES listing, so the workshops also cover the CITES process itself—the permits, the applications— as well as how to track the fins and monitor living populations.

Regnery, for one, is optimistic. “In Senegal, one of the countries pointed out that at the CITES meeting last year, some of the CITES and fisheries authorities from the same countries wouldn’t even shake hands at the meeting. They wouldn’t even talk to each other.

“And now, to see them sitting together at the table and working together constructively, and figuring out how they can collaborate, is very meaningful. And I would imagine that this would extend to more issues than just sharks—now that they’re working together.”

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