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Almost all species in global shark fin trade to be protected

Shark fins are packed into a Hong Kong storefront on Thursday, the day dozens of countries voted for better protections for sharks. The city is a global hub for the shark fin trade. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images)

Dozens of countries voted this week to regulate a global trade that has killed millions of sharks and threatened numerous species in recent decades — all over a bowl of soup.

Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) voted to limit or regulate nearly all species being traded for the main ingredient in shark fin soup. The proposal was led by Panama, the host country of the 19th Conference of the Parties to CITES, also known as the World Wildlife Conference, which runs through Nov. 25.

The decision is a “landmark in not only the number of species it covers, but in the amount of the trade that is going to be regulated,” said Sue Lieberman, vice president of international policy for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “If you’re going to ask, ‘How can it be that we are losing the world’s sharks?’ The answer is, yes, it’s because of a bowl of soup.”

Lieberman added that China is the largest consumer of shark fins, while Hong Kong is the largest port for the trade.

Before the vote, CITES regulations applied to about 20 to 25 percent of shark species that are frequently fished for their fins. Now, about 90 to 95 percent of those species will be covered, Lieberman said.

Countries participating in the CITES convention will have to issue permits certifying that the fins are legally obtained and that the level of fishing is sustainable. Those permits are usually checked at ports when shark fins are imported and exported, Lieberman said.

About 36 percent of the world’s shark and ray species are threatened with extinction, according to the World Wildlife Fund, but demand for their fins and meat has long blunted conservation efforts.

“Sharks are really in quite a special class when it comes to fisheries because an awful lot of them live a long time. As a result of that, they take a long time to reach maturity and start having young,” said Colman O Criodain, global head of wildlife policy at World Wildlife Fund International. “They’re very vulnerable to overfishing — a little bit of fishing does a lot of damage.”

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Eighty-eight countries voted in favor of the expanded regulations, while 29 voted against it and 17 abstained, the Wildlife Conservation Society said. Dissenting countries included Indonesia, China and Japan.

“The vast bulk of the shark and ray catch worldwide happens in about 20 countries,” O Criodain said. “We know that a lot of these countries struggle with governance on a number of fronts.”

He added that enforcement is “not going to be easy, but in the long run, it’s for the best.”

According to O Criodain, sharks are generally the ocean’s top predators, “so if you’re going to be losing them in significant numbers, you’re going to seriously change the profile of the marine ecosystem.”

“In the long run, you’re going to impede the capacity of the ocean to deliver the food and the other benefits that humans need to survive,” he said.

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