Like it or not, around the world many species of animals are seen as tradeable commodities – for things like food, fur, fashion or medicine. Of course we know that historically hunting animals for commercial gain has often been really bad news for the animals concerned. Just stop and think about some of the most recognisable big land mammals – things like tigers, elephants and rhinos – and it’s pretty evident what trade can do to even well-known beasts, pushing many of them to the very brink of extinction.
In response to ever-increasing pressure on such species, an international organisation was set up to regulate the international trade of endangered species: the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES for short). Through CITES global governments get together to agree actions that protect endangered species, from strictly regulating trade to ensure it’s sustainable, to full-on bans.
So far so good. But marine animals tend to fare worse than those on land. Farther away and more out of sight, the laws governing the world’s oceans are not great if you happen to be one of the critters that live in them, and for many years CITES has simply not been able to step in to protect endangered marine species (fish species in particular) because of some nations’ vehement opposition to them doing so, believing this should *only* be dealt with by Fisheries Management Organisations. Historically of course bad fisheries management has been the problem, rather than a solution for marine conservation.
But things are slowly changing. In recent years some species of sharks and rays have managed to gain trade protections through CITES, as well as some seahorses, and this year’s CITES meeting added even more threatened shark and ray species to that list, thanks to a strong campaigning effort by conservation groups and championing governments. So which species are this year’s winners?
First up, Mobula Rays. ‘Mobu- what?’ I hear some of you ask. These are the so-called ‘devil rays’, an unfortunately named group of amazing filter-feeding giants. They’re a bit smaller than the already protected Manta Rays, but every bit as awesome. If you haven’t already seen the mesmerising footage of these animals leaping out of the sea – you’re in for a treat. Mobulas, like Mantas are endangered because of demand for their gills (gills being pretty important things to keep hold of if you’re a fish). Protection for these gentle giants is great but we need to do so much more to protect them - as their ocean world turns into plastic soup, slow-growing plankton-eating filter-feeders might have a bleak future.
Next to make it on the list are Thresher Sharks. Thresher Sharks are unique, with a whip like tail that can be as long as the rest of their body, leading to them being called ‘Indiana Jones sharks’ by some. That impressive tail is used to slap and stun fish prey, but also sadly makes the Thresher valuable for anyone interested in trading shark fins. These amazing creatures range around the world’s oceans, including chilly UK waters, and one was even photographed leaping clear of out of the sea off Wales not long ago. So trade protections are great for Threshers, but to truly protect these wide-ranging beasts we also need to establish large protected areas - marine reserves, areas free of persecution where they and other species can survive and thrive.
Lastly, the relatively unfamiliar Silky Sharks also gained CITES trade protection. Silky sharks used to be one of the most commonly found sharks in the oceans but their numbers have declined drastically in recent years. They are not alone, an estimated 1/3 of ‘open ocean’ sharks are threatened with extinction and some species' numbers have plummeted to just a few percent of their former numbers. Silky Sharks are a particular victim of tuna fisheries (they're underneath a FAD in the image). These fisheries catch tens of millions of sharks every year, as unwanted, untargeted ‘bycatch’ and silky sharks make up a massive proportion of this in places like the Pacific and Indian Ocean. So-called ‘cheap’ tuna in reality costs the lives of endangered sharks, rays and turtles and much more. Whilst trade protection for Silky Sharks is great news, to truly halt the decline of this once-abundant species, we need to get serious about cleaning up the global tuna industry.
So CITES now has a whole suite of some of the most iconic sharks and rays protected on its lists to varying degrees – Great White, Scalloped Hammerhead, Oceanic Whitetip, Porbeagle, Silky, Thresher, Basking and Whale Sharks, as well as Manta and Mobula Rays (and the related family of sawfishes). That’s great news indeed, but also sad proof that the plight of these amazing animals has been neglected far too long, and they have already been exploited far too much.
We absolutely need trade controls for marine species, there should not be any trade if it’s not sustainable! But trade restrictions alone simply won’t do the job. The fact that these animals are on CITES lists has to be a wake-up call to governments and those responsible for fisheries, and just being on the list won’t save them. We need to look at the root causes of decline of species. To save the ocean’s sharks at the very least we need a radical overhaul of horrendously destructive global fisheries like the tuna industry, and an urgent increase in the amount of large-scale fully-protected marine reserves in our oceans too.