Only one breed of shark, the porbeagle, earns protection at CITES conference

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Delegates at an international conservation conference on Tuesday rejected protections for seven out of eight shark species, approving new trade rules for just one shark coveted for its meat.

Nations attending the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Doha, Qatar, agreed to monitor the trade of porbeagle sharks, which have declined more than 80 percent in the northeast and southwest Atlantic Ocean.

"Porbeagle sharks have finally received the trade protections they so desperately need," said Oceana's marine wildlife scientist, Rebecca Greenberg, adding that the move "will provide international trade data essential to porbeagle shark population assessments."

Fishermen target porbeagle sharks primarily for their meat, although they also seek them for fins and oil. The proposal passed with 86 in favor, 42 against and eight abstaining.

But delegates failed to provide a two-thirds majority vote for proposals aimed at protecting scalloped hammerhead, smooth hammerhead, great hammerhead, sandbar, dusky, oceanic whitetip and spiny dogfish sharks. Fishermen have targeted hammerheads and oceanic whitetips for their fins, which are used to produce shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy. The United States and Palau offered both proposals, arguing that the sharks' numbers have plummeted in recent years.

The delegate from Palau read a statement from President Johnson Toribiong, saying that his people "have subsisted for thousands of years by maintaining our magnificent marine environment" and adding: "But in order for us to continue to have both a viable economy and preserve the site of many of our traditions, we must admit when the desires of man have outstripped the bounty of Mother Nature."

Scalloped hammerhead sharks, which are often caught in lines set for tuna and swordfish, have declined by as much as 98 percent in some areas. Oceanic whitetip sharks have declined by as much as 90 percent in the central Pacific Ocean and 99 percent in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tom Strickland, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, said the United States may bring up some of the shark proposals on Thursday, the conference's final day, when any conference decision can be reconsidered.

Strickland noted that the proposal to regulate the trade of hammerhead sharks failed by just five votes, providing an opening for another attempt to pass it.

"We are encouraged by the support these particular proposals garnered," he said. "If you're going to come up short, you want it to be a close game."

All three votes occurred in a secret ballot, but during the debate, Japan, China and Cuba opposed the hammerhead and whitetip protections, arguing regional fishery managers should take the lead in overseeing sharks and that regulation would impose heavy costs. But environmentalists said that the delegates had ignored compelling scientific evidence.

"Sharks have been on our planet for more than 400 million years," said Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation for the Pew Environment Group. "But if governments do not act, many shark species will not last. Most species reproduce late in life, have few young and simply do not have the capacity to recover from commercial extraction and global trade."

The proposal for scalloped hammerhead sharks failed by a vote of 75 in favor, 45 against and 14 abstentions. Delegates rejected regulation for oceanic whitetip sharks by a vote of 75 in favor, 51 against and 16 abstaining. An effort to regulate the trade in spiny dogfish sharks failed by a vote of 60 for and 67 against, with 11 abstaining.

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