While for many, COP27 hasn’t stacked up quite as expected, another summit has seen more success with its initiative to regulate shark killings.
Sharks, and in particular requiem sharks, are sort after for various properties, but mostly for their fins, which are used in soups across Japan and other Asian countries. Historically, the practice has been largely unregulated and is particularly cruel to the animal. Once caught, the fin is removed, and the shark is tossed back into the ocean, still alive and doomed shortly to die. The fin helps stabilise the shark and creates a low area of pressure, which increases its efficiency in the water. Surviving the loss of their fins is never much of a problem for these sharks as they either quickly bleed out or are devoured by hungry predators attracted by the scent of blood.
The 186th-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) seeks to change that by limiting commercial trade for requiem sharks. The agreement is set to include all 54 species of requiem which are endangered, as well as six hammerhead species and 37 guitarfish, a species of ray fish.
The proposal is currently backed by 40 countries, including the EU and the UK, making up two-thirds of the potential market. Regulation will require countries to ensure their own legal systems when handling any trade. Assistance will also be given to customs and border level officials, with necessary CITES permits and certificates to show legal rights for capture.
Unsurprisingly, Japan, where the shark fin trade is most populous, has protested this movement, attempting to remove 35 species of shark and ray species not in decline. Thankfully, their demands were not met. Considering around 37% of shark and ray species have entered the endangered list in the last fifty years, it’s perhaps no wonder why the UN also expressed concern about regulating non-endangered species.
However, some critics of the CITES listing worry that these new regulations will create a higher-priced black market, making the practice even more desirable for illegal fishers. Given Japan’s reluctance to regulate whaling around the Antarctic in 2014, concerns about this potential black market are justified. Japan has continued whaling programs under the guise of scientific research, which has led to a decline in whale populations worldwide. This practice exploits a loophole in the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) 1986 ruling against whaling, allowing whale capturing and killing for ‘scientific purposes’ before the parts are sold to schools and supermarkets.
A few species of whale are thankfully recovering, including the western South Atlantic humpback, but the actual number depends largely on the creature’s habitat. And of course, plastic pollution, which struggles to be regulated, as well as warmer oceans have led to the decline of whales and their food sources.
So what does this mean for the new commission? Given that the Japanese government removed itself from the International Whaling Commission in 2018 to resume whaling within their own waters, it might be expected that resistance will continue, depopulating Japan of many of its marine creatures.
Thankfully, many species of shark follow a smaller migratory chart than whales, circling the waters of the United States. Others migrate thousands of miles in search of food, warmer conditions and mating grounds. The concept of specific human-enforced boundaries, therefore, presents a problem when it comes to both environmental and ocean-going issues. And since there’s also been a degree of resistance from the Americas, especially Peru and Ecuador, illegal fishing is expected to continue. Peru is also responsible for feeding Hong Kong’s shark fin exports, a trade that risks being largely unregulated due to the easy access both countries have to each other.
So where does this leave the most recent ruling? While an outright ban would be preferable, this latest decision appears to be one of the most significant in recent history. Breaking regulations for CITES or with CITE-listed species could result in the temporary closure of existing trade, an action with some financial hurt but not an overly harsh measure.
The good news is that most other countries in CITES are keen to implement this ruling, as 70% of the requiem family stands endangered. Sharks are a crucial part of the ecosystem, as a top predator and clean up crew for much dead life. Without them, the increased numbers of other marine life, such as green turtles, could lead to the overgrazing of seagrass beds.
Sharks are far from the menace they’re portrayed to be, only mistakenly biting some humans who appear in their natural habitats. Which is exactly how we should be viewing the situation. Encroaching every part of the globe, humanity has hunted untold numbers of species to extinction without bothering to understand their greater role in the Earth’s vast ecosystem. Hopefully, this new ruling comes in time to stop the latest in a series of increasing extinctions.
Only time will tell.
- Brown, Jim. “Why do sharks have a fin on their back?” on The Knowledge Burrow. Date Published: 15th July, 2021. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3VvL9xh.
- Collyns, Dan. “Shark fin trade regulated at last in landmark decision” on Guardian. Date Published: 18th November, 2022. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3u2tu4G.
- D’Ambrogia, Kelly. “Japan Continues Illegal Whaling Scheme” on IMMP. Date Published: 5th May, 2017. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3VvVo4G.
- “Shark Migration (Patterns & Routes)” on sharksinfo.com. Date Sourced: 26th November, 2022. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3ANcXpc.
- “Whaling in Japan” on WDC. ate Sourced: 26th November, 2022. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3VaiLkO.
- Whitehead, Kelli. “Why are sharks important?” on Ocean News. Date Published: 11th November, 2020. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3gw0Iqh.
- World Economic Forum. “Whale populations are slowly recovering – this is why” on The European Sting. Date Published: 29th October, 2019. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3OE5w9F.
- “Yearly Worldwide Shark Attack Summary” on Florida Museum. Date Sourced: 26th November, 2022. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3F2NvhM.
About the author - meet Earthan James McCulloch
James is a literary student and environmental enthusiast who likes thinking about the better futures we could have (and those we best avoid). When not playing with other people’s dogs or taking long, mindful walks, he’s usually found reading and writing, often at the local library. You can check him out on his blog for something a little different, where he talks about all things literary or otherwise.