New Tools to Curtail the Illegal Shark Trade

By Luke Warwick | March 9, 2022

Dozens of confiscated wedgefish laid out on a blue tarp.
Confiscated wedgefish. Photo credit: ©Rima Jabado.

The commercial trade in shark and ray parts is valued at a billion dollars annually, but until recently it has been poorly regulated, driving these slow growing predators towards oblivion.

With 37 percent of almost 1,100 species of sharks, rays, and chimaeras recently evaluated as threatened with extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species (assessed as Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable), regulation and oversight of this trade is essential if it isn’t to push shark and ray species closer to the edge.

A new one-stop visual identification tool has been developed to get customs officials the information they need to seize any shark products that are being traded illegally.

Over the last decade, the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has listed an increasing number of shark and ray species in its appendices to combat the threat of this trade. But these measures need to be implemented and well enforced if they are to be effective.

A chart displaying images and identifications of shark and ray species whose trade is regulated by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.
Shark and ray species protected via the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Credit: Luke Warwick/WCS.

A particular challenge for customs officials and fisheries and trade inspectors is the identification of individual shark species and their products with which they are not familiar. Fortunately, a group of Governments, NGO’s and scientists have collaborated to produce guides with the most up-to-date available information on each CITES-listed species to assist fisheries and customs inspectors in implementing the CITES regulations.

Since 2014, approximately 60 regional and domestic shark and ray workshops have taken place globally to assist with the implementation of CITES listings, and the feedback from those trainings has informed the development of these new guides, ensuring they cover the products most commonly traded in a way that allows for quick training of customs and border staff.

Guide author Rima Jabado at a shark and ray identification workshop in Hong Kong. Photo credit: Luke Warwick/WCS.

The new one-stop visual identification tool has been developed to help streamline these trainings and get customs officials the information they need to seize any shark products that are being traded illegally. This new resource is being made freely available to all CITES Governments as they gather this week at the Convention’s Standing Committee in Lyon, France.

The guides will be crucial in helping customs departments identify products from protected and regulated species that are often hidden in shipments of unlisted species.

The three identification guides cover whole animals; shark trunks (bodies with head and fins removed) that are exported to be consumed as meat; and dried products such as shark fins, sawfish rostra, and manta and devil ray gill plates. The guides combine decades of previous work, simplifying the training process for customs officials by covering all CITES-listed species and the major products in trade in one tool.

The three new shark and ray identification guides. Credit: Luke Warwick/WCS.

These guides will be crucial in helping customs departments in countries where sharks and rays are caught and traded to identify products from protected and regulated CITES-listed species that are often hidden in shipments of unlisted species. This aids the implementation of the Convention in its crucial aim of preventing unsustainable trade driving sharks and rays to extinction in the face of a continued decline in these ancient predators’ populations.

Trainings using these guides have already been conducted in Mozambique and Colombia, with additional work planned for a range of countries, including Bangladesh and Madagascar in the coming months. The three part identification tool is available in English for download at no cost, with additional languages to be added in the coming months.

Luke Warwick is Director of Shark Conservation at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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