Demand for shark products is driving some species to extinction, but countries meeting in Bangkok this week have a chance to save the ocean's top predator.
Delegates from 177 countries began a two week negotiation on March 3 to decide whether to manage international trade in some shark species, as well as other vulnerable plants and animals.
The delegates will discuss whether sharks should be protected under a treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Treaty meetings to consider protections for species occur about every 2 1/2 years and mark the best chance on a global scale to save imperiled wildlife that is traded internationally. For sharks, this means a conference on land might be part of the solution to their survival at sea.
The treaty is the most recognized, effective and successfully enforced international conservation agreement. It protects more than 30,000 species and has helped prevent the extinction of numerous plants and animals. Yet only three of those protected species are sharks-the whale shark and the basking and great white sharks. We now have the opportunity to save more.
Countries will consider safeguards for five shark species and two species of manta rays-animals that are closely related to sharks. If the delegates approve, these ocean animals could be traded only when international sales would not cause a harmful decline in their populations. In other words, to be permitted, the catch must be sustainable.
My colleagues and I at The Pew Charitable Trusts know that time is running out to save these awe-inspiring animals. Scientists say nearly one-third of all shark species are headed for extinction, and up to 73 million are killed every year for fins that end up in bowls of soup.
Shark advocates began preparing for the Bangkok talks months ago. Last summer, I joined fellow shark attack survivors, a group that works to save sharks despite our injuries, in visiting members of Congress and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
We asked them to champion a proposal to help oceanic whitetip sharks, a species whose population in the Gulf of Mexico plummeted by up to 99 percent since the 1950s. The United States did the right thing in helping take the lead in proposing protections for whitetip sharks.
Other conservation-minded countries are similarly heeding the call to protect sharks.
These countries are carrying the torch for porbeagle sharks, which are critically endangered in the Mediterranean Sea and northeast Atlantic. Three species of hammerheads-scalloped, great and smooth-are also on the roster. Great and scalloped hammerheads already are endangered, and smooth populations are declining.
When this convention last met in 2010, short-term economic gain took precedence over the long-term survival of a top predator that helps keep the ocean ecosystem in balance. But there is reason to hope momentum is shifting and this year will be different.
Brazil, Colombia, Comoros, Costa Rica, Croatia, Ecuador, Egypt, Honduras, Mexico, the United States and the European Union are all sponsoring the shark proposals. With their leadership, these shark species have a chance to make a comeback.
You can help save the ocean's top predator by joining the Shark Stanley campaign, a global student-led drive to persuade the delegates to protect more shark species. The campaign is collecting photos from people who favor protecting sharks. The photos will be presented at the treaty talks.
The goal is to have photos from the 177 countries participating in the Bangkok meeting. So far, organizers have pictures from 116 countries. If you want to add your photos, visit www.SharkStanley.com.
Debbie Salamone is a shark attack survivor and a communications officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts. She is the organizer of Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation.