Since its establishment 40 years ago, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has been regulating the trade in species that we may otherwise drive to extinction. CITES is an international, legally binding agreement made between parties, which restricts and regulates international trade in species of concern, and is considered one of the most well regulated international conservation agreements in existence.
Previously, only three shark species have ever been protected under CITES; the whale shark, basking shark and great white shark, but with new evidence revealing 100 million sharks are killed each year (and possibly up to 273 million), the 16th Conference of the Parties (CoP) in Bangkok from 3th – 14th March was set to stage one of the biggest debates in CITES history.
Seven species of shark and manta ray were proposed for listing on Appendix II; three species of hammerhead shark (the great, scalloped and smooth), porbeagle and oceanic whitetip shark, along with the giant manta and manta ray. With shark fins and manta ray gills securing high values in certain markets for food and medicinal uses, there was strong opposition from powerful nations such as Japan and China.
To help support these sharks, Shark Defenders, in collaboration with a group of shark conservationists, students and artists, created Shark Stanley and Friends, characters whose aim it was to share the plight of these endangered species with children and adults alike around the world. The aim was to create a petition using photographs of Shark Stanley from all the countries he visited, and present this petition to delegates in Bangkok.
In Belize, the landing of sharks without fins is illegal, and a moratorium is in place protecting nurse sharks from any fishing. To support the plight of sharks in Belize, TIDE visited primary schools in Punta Gorda and Punta Negra to see what the children had to say. In each class, the most common conception the children held was that sharks eat people. When faced with the reality, that for every 100 million sharks killed, only 5-10 people are killed, the seeds of changing perceptions were sown. As well as telling the story of The Adventures of Shark Stanley and Friends, the children were taught about shark biology, why sharks are under threat, and why they are crucial to a healthy ecosystem. By the end of each session, the children were eager to show their new understanding and support for the conservation of sharks, by posing for pictures with Stanley. Pictures from consenting schools were sent to Shark Defenders, who added them to their petition, and created posters to display in Bangkok. A letter of support for sharks and manta rays was also sent from TIDE’s executive director, Ms Celia Mahung, to the CITES representative of Belize, with accompanying pictures of support.
For Shark Defenders, the results were staggering, with 135 CITES nations submitting photographs and supporting the cause. During the CoP, the Shark Stanley crew worked tirelessly, speaking with delegates, rallying support and debunking the myths that sharks do not need protection, and that regulations would be too difficult to enforce.
The conference started well for shark and rays, with all seven proposed shark and ray proposals being adopted, despite strong opposition from a few and only a marginal majority vote on some species. However, the decisions weren’t final. In the concluding days of the conference parties are permitted to request any vote to be reopened. All of the shark and ray proposals were brought back to this session. After more discussion and debate, there is a vote to see whether the adoption should be revoked, and the whole proposal voted upon from fresh. To revoke the adoption and reopen the vote, the motion must receive at least a 1/3 majority. On Thursday, 14th March 2013, history was made in Bangkok, with all seven proposals being adopted without revote.
Before the CITES meeting in Bangkok, 2013 was being dubbed as the Year of the Shark. Thanks to the dedicated individuals who worked to provide the CITES community with the scientific information needed to secure shark listings, this prediction was realised. However, this is only the beginning for shark conservation. With over 400 species of shark still unprotected, there is an urgent need for continued conservation efforts. Bangkok 2013 should serve as a symbol of what can be achieved, and just a taster of what is to come.
 Worm, B., Davis, B., Kettemer, L., Ward-Paige, C. A., Chapman, D., Heithaus, M. R., Kessel, S. T. & Gruber, S. H. (2013) Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks. Marine Policy 40: 194-204