Space & Innovation

Sharks, Manta Rays Win Global Trade Protection

Three shark species and the manta ray won international trade protection Monday.

Several shark species and the manta ray won international trade protection Monday in a move hailed by conservationists as a breakthrough in efforts to save them from being wiped out by overfishing.

The deal at a major wildlife conference in Bangkok marked a rare victory in the fight by environmentalists to reverse a slump in populations of sharks -- the world's oldest predator -- due to rampant demand for its fins.

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Rather than a complete ban, the 178-member Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to restrict cross-border trade in the oceanic whitetip, the porbeagle, three types of hammerheads and the manta ray.

The agreement, which must still be formally approved by the CITES plenary session, delighted conservationists who warn that Asia's voracious appetite for shark fins is causing their population to plunge.

"The tide is now turning for shark conservation," said Elizabeth Wilson of Pew's Global Shark Conservation Campaign.

"With these new protections, oceanic whitetip, porbeagle, and hammerhead sharks will have the chance to recover and once again fulfill their role as top predators in the marine ecosystem."

Monday's deal would require countries to regulate trade by issuing export permits to ensure their sustainability in the wild, otherwise they could face sanctions by members of CITES, a global treaty which protects some 35,000 species.

Under the CITES framework, however, a party may ask to reconsider the decision at the plenary session, as happened in 2010 when an initial agreement to control international trade in the porbeagle was later overturned.

Conservationists say sharks are slow to reproduce and may become threatened with extinction without better monitoring and management.

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"During their lifetimes they have relatively few offspring and they only start reproducing at a relatively late age -- they're more like mammals in many ways than fish," said Colman O'Criodain, an expert with the WWF.

Asian nations led by Japan and China -- where shark fin soup is considered a delicacy -- tried in vain to block the proposals, which were pushed by countries including Brazil, Colombia and the United States.

If the deal gets final approval, the five species would join the great white shark, the whale shark and the basking shark, which already enjoy international trade controls. Members would have 18 months to introduce the new measures.

Humans kill about 100 million sharks each year, mostly for their fins, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and conservationists are warning that dozens of species are under threat.

Ninety percent of the world's sharks have disappeared over the past 100 years, mostly because of overfishing in countries such as Indonesia, the FAO says.

Conservationists also argue that "finning" -- slicing the valuable fins from live sharks -- is inhumane, as the rest of the animal is typically dumped back into the ocean where it bleeds slowly to death.

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Shark fin soup was once a luxury for China's elite, but shark populations have been decimated around the world as the country's 1.3 billion people have grown wealthier and incorporated it into their festivities.

"The trade is driven by the demands of a luxury market, whether it's shark fin soup for banquets in China, porbeagle meat in Europe where it's considered a delicacy or the gill plates in the manta ray which are used in Chinese medicine," said the WWF's O'Criodain.

Hong Kong is the world's largest shark fin market with about 50 percent of the global trade, according to campaign group Pew.

The CITES meeting is also discussing how to tackle illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn with environmentalists calling for wildlife trade sanctions against countries which fail to take sufficient action.

A proposed ban on international trade in polar bears was rejected last week, with opponents warning that it would distract from the bigger threat from global warming.

Scuba diver swims with an Oceanic Whitetip Shark (Carcharhinus longimanus) in the Bahamas.

Atlantic Halibut

April 25, 2012 -

Whole Foods, the Texas-based natural foods supermarket, no longer carries fish considered to be unsustainable. The Whole Foods ban includes fish that is either overfished or caught in a harmful way, according to their website. The popular Atlantic Halibut made the list, though the company will still sell Atlantic cod that is caught by hook and line or gillnets. "Stewardship of the ocean is so important to our customers and to us," David Pilat, the global seafood buyer for Whole Foods told the New York Times. "We're not necessarily here to tell fishermen how to fish, but on a species like Atlantic cod, we are out there actively saying, 'For Whole Foods Market to buy your cod, the rating has to be favorable.'" Here's a look at the list of fish that the superstore no longer sells and why.

Octopus Whole Foods uses ratings set by the Blue Ocean Institute, a conservation group, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. The ratings are based on factors including how abundant a species is, how quickly it reproduces and whether the catch method damages its habitat.

Imported Wild Shrimp "At Whole Foods Market, we've been saying that our mission is to sell only wild-caught fish that has been responsibly caught. For a few years now, we've used color-coded sustainability ratings, from green (best choice) to red (avoid), to help you make an informed choice. Now we're putting our mackerel where our mouth is: To support greater abundance in our oceans, we're no longer carrying red-rated wild-caught seafood!" the company wrote on its blog.

Tuna (from specific areas and catch methods rated "red") On their website, Whole Foods says that they stopped selling "species that were extremely depleted in the oceans, such as orange roughy, shark and bluefin tuna" years ago. The company uses the sustainability ratings of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

Rockfish According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, "In recent years, reduced fishing has allowed many rockfish populations to recover from low levels. Gear concerns remain, however -- trawl-caught rockfish should still be avoided."

Swordfish Some of the gear used to fish swordfish "accidentally catches sea turtles, seabirds and sharks," according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Skate Wing Skates are in the overfished category. Most are also caught with bottom trawls, which result in high levels of accidental catch.

Sturgeon According to Monterey Bay Aquarium, "Sturgeon farmed in the U.S. is a good alternative to most wild sturgeon, whose populations have seriously declined due to overfishing for sturgeon eggs (caviar)."

Tautog Also known as black fish, Tautog are considered a "vulnerable" species. They are found close to shore on hard-bottom habitats, occasionally entering brackish water.

Trawl-Caught Atlantic Cod Fishermen often catch cod with bottom trawl, large nets that skim across the seafloor. Trawling, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, "damages marine habitats and produces bycatch."

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Turbot A cousin of Pacific halibut, turbot are a right-eyed flatfish -- as they develop, their left eye migrates across the top of the skull toward the other eye on the right side. Turbot are yellowish or grayish-brown on top and paler on their underside.

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Gray Sole Gray sole, a flatfish bottom-dweller, has experienced heavy fishing pressure from domestic and international fleets over the last half-century, according to Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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