At a recent United Nations meeting, the international community failed to protect sharks. Are they doomed?
Although millions of sharks are killed each year across the globe, countries did nothing to reduce the carnage during an international meeting last month to discuss trade in vulnerable species.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) rejected trade regulations that would have given some protections to a handful of the most severely depleted sharks, including hammerheads.
But here's the good news: A majority of countries voted for safeguards to protect sharks. Their wishes were shot down only because new trade regulations needed a two-thirds vote of the 175 nations that belong to the treaty.
If a majority of nations got the message that sharks need help, there's hope. My colleagues at Pew (www.pewsharks.org) and my fellow shark attack victim friends are riding that momentum as we take our next steps to save these amazing predators.
It's time to turn up the heat on fishery managers who oversee marine resources in regional areas of the high seas. The United Nations has repeatedly asked these fishery management organizations to develop comprehensive shark fishing and conservation plans, but none have done so. Shark fishing remains mostly unregulated throughout many parts of the world. These groups finally need to set and enforce shark fishing limits.
CITES and the UN also have asked individual nations to write shark conservation plans that would address such topics as sustainable catch and preserving shark habitat. But only a handful of countries, including the United States, have complied. That's just not acceptable. Sharks will suffer consequences, so there also must be consequences for governments that fail to act.
Some developing countries are worried that shark conservation would harm their economies. Yet at the CITES meeting, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia and Kenya spoke out for sharks. Two countries have realized they risk more harm from plummeting shark populations: Palau and the Maldives. Both nations declared their waters as shark sanctuaries where shark fishing is prohibited. They recognize the value of ecotourism and that sharks are worth a lot more alive in the ecosystem than dead on the docks.
The next CITES meeting is in two and half years. We're going to build an even stronger case for shark protections. The science already supports conservation – more than one third of the world's shark species are threatened or near threatened with extinction. Now we need more complete information about the shark trade, such as which countries and companies are profiting the most and where sharks are headed to markets.
At home, we're still working to pass the U.S. Shark Conservation Act of 2009, which would close loopholes in the nation's shark finning ban. Up to 73 million sharks are killed each year when fishermen slice off the lucrative fins and dump the shark, sometimes still alive, back in the water. The sharks are left to drown or bleed to death. Fins can fetch up to $300 per pound mostly in Asian markets as a soup ingredient.
If the United States can pass this needed legislation, it would be a model for the rest of the world.
It's high time we get serious about saving sharks. These predators have existed for more than 400 million years and survived mass extinctions that obliterated most life on earth, including the dinosaurs. It's unfathomable that we would finally be the cause of their demise.
Debbie Salamone is Communications Manager at the Pew Campaign to End Overfishing in the Southeast.