Sharks and Manta Rays Earn Stronger International Protection

All manta rays and several species of sharks will likely gain international protection this Thursday through the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species

Underwater photographer and conservationist Shawn Heinrichs made this haunting video in order to celebrate and draw attention to the plight of rapidly declining manta rays. Now, his and others’ efforts have finally paid off.

If all goes well, some species of sharks will no longer turn up in a bowl of sharkfin soup, and manta rays will no longer have their gill rakers cut out for use in traditional Chinese medicine—at least not legally. In Bangkok this week, countries from around the world voted to give all manta rays and several species of shark official protection under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The decision will be announced officially on Thursday, but things look good.

To gain the new protective status, a handful of countries, including the U.S., Brazil, Colombia, Denmark, Mexico and Ecuador, nominated the species they felt needed further protection. On that list was three species of hammerhead sharks, oceanic white tip sharks, porbeagles (a kind of mackerel shark) and all manta rays. Each of these four groups received more than 90 country votes. Two-thirds of the CITES 177 member countries must vote in favor for new status labels to pass.

The Guardian explains the severity of the current situation for sharks:

Sharks are highly sought after but are slow to mature and have few offspring, making them extremely vulnerable to overfishing.

The fins of the scalloped hammerhead are among the most valuable of all and it is estimated that 2 million a year are killed.

Scientists estimate that about 100m sharks are killed by humans every year, representing 6-8% of all sharks and far above a sustainable level.

As for manta rays, the Guardian continues:

Their populations are being devastated off Sri Lanka and Indonesia to feed a newly created Chinese medicine market in which their gill plates, used to filter food from the ocean, are sold as a purifying tonic. Around 5,000 a year are killed, generating $5m for traders, but where protected they bring in $140m from tourism.

The New York Times Green Blog explains what the protection would mean for species:

If the animals gain protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or Cites, their trade will have to be regulated by the countries from which they are exported. Shipments of manta gill rakers or other parts will require permits, and the exporting country will need to assure that hunting of the species is sustainable.

Of course, just because trade in manta rays and some sharks will likely soon be regulated does not mean they will shake off the threat of extinction overnight. Many of the world’s most endangered and vulnerable species—think tigers and black rhinos—are fully protected but still turn up on the wildlife black-market. Cultural demand for many of these species runs deep. Shark fin soup, for example, is a traditional staple of Chinese weddings so probably will not be dropped from the menu lightly, one delegate told the Guardian. “It would be like telling the French not to have champagne at their wedding,” she said.

But still, the new status rulings will hopefully bring more attention to the problem and make it easier for officials to enforce protective rules and prosecute those who violate them.

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