World Oceans Day 2020

Record Hauls of Illegal Shark Fins — But Can They Help Save Species on the Brink?

By Luke Warwick | June 8, 2020

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Credit: Emily Darling/WCS

Last World Oceans Day, WCS focused on the global crisis sharks face, and the urgency of action to save them. Some of the issues are longstanding problems, with sharks still widely either unmanaged or poorly managed, and declining. However, in a positive step over the last year, the listings via the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) that we supported were adopted.

Today, fully one quarter of the shark fin trade is now regulated under the world’s premier wildlife conservation convention, though much of the shark fin trade is unsustainable and often illegal. Nevertheless, the importance of maintaining enforcement pressure for shark conservation remains high.

Shark fins and meat dry before export in Bangladesh. Credit: Luke Warwick/WCS.

To take just one example, in Hong Kong this March, Customs officials confiscated a record-smashing 26 tonnes of illegally traded shark fins, estimated to have come from about 38,500 sharks.

This news reminded us that many illegally traded sharks continue to be removed from the world’s oceans, as their remaining populations dwindle.

Yet in the midst of the escalating crises that make us question our approaches to all aspects of our lives, what at first might seem to be a negative story on wide-scale illegal shark and ray exploitation and trade upon closer scrutiny also contains a positive message of hope for the future.

It’s worth thinking about where shark conservation has come from in its fairly young history.

Until 2013, the global trade in shark fins was almost completely unregulated and busts like the one in Hong Kong were impossible, because the trade was almost always legal. Shark conservation was low on almost every Government’s radar.

“Though fully one quarter of the shark fin trade is now regulated under the world’s premier wildlife conservation convention, the importance of maintaining enforcement pressure remains high.”

Now however, momentum is building in trade hubs such as Hong Kong to enforce the CITES listings of over 35 species that have been adopted over the past seven years, and enhanced enforcement by many countries and territories. The result: record-breaking fin confiscations.

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Inspecting landings in Indonesia of Critically Endangered wedgefish, species that were CITES listed in late 2019. Credit: Luke Warwick/WCS.

This alone would still be sad news, but the impact of enforcement actions in these trade hubs also has a ripple effect in the countries where sharks and rays are still often unmanaged and caught in unsustainable or illegal fisheries.

Countries where WCS works, and governments are working to implement and enforce it, include Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, India, Bangladesh, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, which catch and trade large quantities of sharks and rays.

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WCS staff help train customs officials at identification workshops in Hong Kong in January 2020. Credit: Luke Warwick/WCS.

They urgently need technical and scientific assistance in understanding and managing their fisheries, ways to protect and avoid catching the most threatened species, all in a manner that doesn’t adversely impact isolated and vulnerable local communities who rely on the ocean for food.

This is where WCS is focusing — ensuring that these high- level policy measures, and the impact they have in trade hubs and markets, lead to the right action where sharks are being most heavily impacted, in a way that is equitable but also generates critical conservation action in a timely manner.

“Sharks and rays are still species on the brink, but increasingly we have the tools and the momentum to prevent the extinction of threatened and endangered species.”

We have been joined by a range of funding partners, and are rapidly growing the scope and scale of our shark conservation work around the world. This is what it looks like in reality, via a video produced by WCS Bangladesh, showing the challenges and opportunities for progress on shark conservation in locations where it matters most:

Sharks and rays are still species on the brink, but increasingly we have the tools and the momentum to prevent the extinction of threatened and endangered species, and to ensure that more common species do not become endangered. While the world continues to slowly emerge from the shutdown that has slowed both conservation action and shark fisheries, there is hope.

Luke Warwick is Associate Director for Sharks and Rays at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

Our Ocean, Our Future

Conserving and managing the marine biodiversity of our…

Wildlife Conservation Society

Written by

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

Our Ocean, Our Future

Conserving and managing the marine biodiversity of our oceans is a monumental task that few countries have the capacity to do on their own. WCS is responding by investing in ocean protection, sustainable fisheries, and marine species conservation where the need is greatest

Wildlife Conservation Society

Written by

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

Our Ocean, Our Future

Conserving and managing the marine biodiversity of our oceans is a monumental task that few countries have the capacity to do on their own. WCS is responding by investing in ocean protection, sustainable fisheries, and marine species conservation where the need is greatest

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