How CITES Is Starting to Drive Improvements in Shark Management and Trade

Dr. Andy Cornish, Leader of Sharks: Restoring the Balance, WWF’s global shark and ray conservation programme

Sep 19 · 8 min read
Silky shark is one of 20 commercially important shark and ray species added by CITES to Appendix II between 2013 and 2016. © WWF / Vincent Kneefel

While the momentum to conserve and sustainably manage sharks is undoubtedly growing globally, ongoing population declines remain widespread, and only a handful of countries have sustainable fisheries and recovery plans for sharks and rays. The sheer number of countries where improvements are needed is daunting, with for example the Global Sharks and Rays Initiative’s (GSRI) 2015–25 global conservation strategy identifying 60 high priority countries for improved fisheries management and saving species from extinction. As many of these countries have long viewed sharks and rays as a lesser priority for management, finding a pathway to collective action before the most dramatic declines lead to extinctions may seem like an insurmountable challenge.

Enter CITES, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. While regulations on trade may seem distinct from fisheries management, they are actually a key component of comprehensive management measures, at least for fishes like sharks whose products are frequently exported. A species listing on Appendix I of CITES largely prohibits the international trade in its products, while an Appendix II listing requires for trade to be undertaken sustainably and legally. CITES is legally binding and 182 countries plus the EU have signed up to it. As a result, there has been a major push to list those commercially important sharks and rays that are traded internationally onto CITES Appendix II in recent years, and since 2013, 20 of those species have been listed. This does not include the additional 18 species just listed at the 2019 CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP) meeting in Geneva, with those new Appendix II listings entering into force in late November this year.

Impacts of CITES listings

A CITES listing in itself is no guarantee of greater protection for populations threatened by overfishing. A country can meet its CITES obligations by banning the export of CITES-listed species and their products, and might choose to do so when populations have declined too far to support a sustainable trade. In this case overfishing does not need to be addressed in order to comply with CITES — instead, meat and other products can be consumed within country. However, such a pathway represents a lost opportunity of ensuring healthy populations of the listed species, and stable livelihoods of people that depend on them. In this article, I’ll try to provide a flavor of how the CITES listings are starting to impact the national management and trade of listed sharks and rays.

A devil ray is being brought to shore in Indonesia. All species of devil rays have been listed by CITES Appendix II in 2016. © Paul Hilton / WWF

One of very few studies on this was led by the Food and Agriculture Organization in 2016 and examined seven Southeast Asian countries and Japan. Overall, the study found a measurable but small positive influence of CITES in 5 out of 8 countries, negative impacts in two, and challenges for all eight in maintaining a legal trade of the CITES-listed species.[1] Examples of stricter fishing and trade controls put in place in most of the countries included catch bans on CITES listed species in Myanmar and Vietnam, on whale sharks and mantas in Indonesia and the Philippines, and zero export quotas for CITES Appendix II listed species in Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand.

Malaysia has since built on this with a new regulation implemented in July 2019 to ensure full legal protection for the great hammerhead and smooth hammerhead sharks, oceanic whitetip shark, as well as oceanic and reef mantas.

While less headline-catching than new regulations, one apparently widespread response to the CITES elasmobranch listings in 2013 has been an improvement in capturing species-level data on their catches. Encouragingly, this has often covered all sharks and rays, not just those listed on CITES. A good example of this again comes from Asia, where the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Centre implemented a 12-month project in 2015–16, collecting species-level capture production records at 12 landing sites in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, supported by a new field guide on species identification.

Nevertheless, the lack of such basic data continues to hinder better monitoring and management of sharks in many countries. One way that WWF has tried to address this challenge, was to partner with researchers at the James Cook University in Australia to produce a Rapid Assessment Toolkit for Sharks and Rays that consists of simple, practical step-by-step guidelines to collecting basic information.

Government observer checking pelagic threshers onboard a fishing vessel in Ecuador.
© Andy Cornish / WWF.

Emerging leaders

A number of countries such as Ecuador, Indonesia, Mexico and Sri Lanka have undertaken non-detriment findings for the 2013 listed species (e.g. hammerheads, and manta rays), and moved onto those added in 2016 (e.g. silky and thresher sharks). A non-detriment finding (or NDF) is CITES jargon for an assessment of the sustainability of trade. Ecuador is already an emerging leader in shark and ray management, having banned steel traces in longline fisheries in 2007,[2] introduced a fins-naturally attached regulation in 2008, species-specific management measures including size limits for hammerhead sharks in 2013, and strict protection of giant manta rays and mobulas in 2010. More recently, WWF collaborated with authorities to build on these, through a training workshop on NDFs that drafted NDFs for three species of threshers and silky shark. One important outcome has been an increased level of collaboration between the CITES scientific authority, fisheries managers, and academics.

In Indonesia, a zero quota on exports of hammerhead fins was introduced, while a combined non-detriment finding for the three hammerhead sharks has been completed and an increased export quota is being considered. While measures to limit catches have not yet been introduced, projects to identify and protect nursery grounds for juvenile scalloped hammerheads and to trial bycatch mitigation methods for gill nets are being initiated by WWF and others.

Meanwhile in Mexico, authorities have formulated a holistic action plan focusing on eight priority species, all listed on CITES. This includes improving data collection with fishers, improving enforcement, updating their National Plan of Action, and evaluating the effectiveness of existing management measures. Other fisheries management measures (such as quotas, size limits, or closing fisheries in areas of essential habitat) that could promote sustainable management of CITES-listed shark fisheries will be scrutinized. NDFs for four of the eight priority species, plus silky sharks and all three species of thresher sharks, have now been formulated.

Scalloped hammerhead is one of the 3 hammerhead species listed in 2013, which Sri Lanka completed an NDF for. © Antonio Busiello / WWF-US

Sri Lanka was a key proponent for listing sharks in 2016, and has laudably made its NDFs for hammerheads and silky sharks publicly available on the CITES website. The NDF for silky shark was “positive with conditions”, enabling trade to continue while improvements are made to existing fisheries and trade management measures, and while additional research that can inform management is undertaken. Management options that will be explored include measures to avoid and reduce silky shark bycatch and post-release mortality in long line fisheries, such as using monofilament line rather than wire-leaders. Encouragingly, the NDF will be updated after two years to gauge progress and incorporate new data and learnings — an approach that others would be wise to follow.

Sri Lanka’s case demonstrates that NDFs do not necessarily result in a complete shut-down of a fishery but could instead support improvements in its management. Even in the absence of comprehensive data and pre-existing management measures, it might be possible to allow for fishing to continue as long as the NDF sets a direction for mitigating any shortcomings in the current fishery management regime. In fact, this type of approach was emphasized at a significant International Expert Workshop on CITES Non-Detriment Findings held in Cancun, Mexico, in 2008.

Workshop on shark fin identification of CITES-listed species. Expert Debbie Abercrombie training frontline staff in Beijing. © Andy Cornish / WWF

Efforts to get CITES to work for sharks have not been limited to those countries catching sharks, but also to improving enforcement in major trading hubs where enforcement is vital. NGOs including BLOOM, Pew Charitable Trusts, TRAFFIC, and WWF have worked with global experts to hold training workshops on the identification of CITES-listed shark fin for authorities in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam. The results speak for themselves. In Hong Kong, between 2014–17 alone the authorities seized more than 5,100 kg of shark fin from CITES Appendix II listed species, mostly hammerheads and oceanic whitetips.

Five years on since the first wave of Appendix II listings for commercially important sharks and rays came into effect, some patterns are beginning to emerge. Firstly, progress is taking time — a surprise to nobody who has worked on CITES implementation for any species. Secondly, examples of catch limits for CITES-listed species remain elusive, except in countries that already had them in place such as Australia and the USA. This should not come as a surprise when considering that many countries may have had little species-level catch data and little to none shark-specific management until recently. What we can see more commonly through the examples provided here are improvements to data collection, bans on catch, retention, or export of CITES-listed sharks and rays, and better enforcement by major shark fin importers.

WWF-Indonesia observer measuring a broadnose wedgefish onboard a fishing vessel. 16 species of wedgefishes and giant guitarfishes were listed by CITES on Appendix II this year. © WWF-Indonesia

The need to press ahead

In 2015, the now former CITES Secretary General, John Scanlon noted, “The Parties to CITES are making concerted efforts to effectively implement the 2013 CITES listings of sharks and manta rays, and this has been complemented by a global collective effort to support implementation that is unprecedented in the 40-year history of the Convention.” These efforts will have to continue for years to come for CITES to have the desired impact and lead to halting population declines of sharks and rays still threatened by overfishing and international trade. As the recent CoP18 proved, the CITES Secretariat remains committed.

Bans on capture and trade can help, but ultimately need to be part of a package of measures that prevent unsustainable fishing mortality, and where necessary allow populations to recover. A dual approach of protecting critical habitats[3] for the listed species and reducing their bycatch in multi-species fisheries in neighbouring areas has a lot to offer. This will continue to be a key area of focus for WWF in our efforts to support countries in implementing CITES for sharks and rays in years to come, including the just added wedgefishes, and giant guitarfishes.

[1] Friedman K, Gabriel S, Abe O, et al (2018) Examining the impact of CITES listing of sharks and rays in Southeast Asian fisheries. Fish and Fisheries 19:662–676. DOI: 10.1111/faf.12281

[2] Banning steel traces in longline fisheries is one of the most effective ways of reducing the catches of sharks as it increases the likelihood of them biting through the line and freeing themselves


Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade