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By now most of us are aware of the sobering reality about our shark and ray species globally. They’re disappearing, and they’re disappearing fast. In fact, the Shark Specialist Group (SSG), in a new study published just this year, claims that over a quarter of our shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction. Surely the silver lining to these really depressing facts is the recent progress being made with global conservation conventions. Some of these conventions like CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, are tasked with protecting vulnerable species from aggressive harvesting and international trade, others like CMS, the Convention for Migratory Species, focuses on helping to facilitate regional management of threatened species.
The momentum surrounding shark and ray conservation is at an all time high – it’s like we have broken through the glass ceiling so to speak – and this precedent has allowed for one success story after the next. Less than a decade ago, only a handful of shark species were listed on international conventions. Recently, due in large part to mounting scientific evidence and well placed media coverage, more species are being considered for CITES and CMS listing than ever before.
The highlight is that rays are being listed too! In fact, many people are surprised to learn that rays are more threatened in many cases than sharks. In fact, Dr Colin Simpfendorfer, IUCN SSG Co-Chair and renowned elamobranch ecologist stated recently that, “five out of the seven most threatened families of elasmobranchs are rays.” Make no mistake, this is not the first time that scientists have warned that rays need more conservation attention; we’ve just been slow to respond. Simpfendorfer went on to say that, “the public has rallied behind the plight of sharks, while the widespread depletion of rays has gone relatively unnoticed. Conservation action for rays is lagging far behind, which has heightened our concern for this species group.” As someone that focuses my attention on the conservation of rays, I am particularly pleased that rays are receiving more love from the public these days.
So while it may have seemed like an ordinary Sunday to you, today marks one of the most important days in history for sharks and for mantas. After what seemed like a never ending wait (due to an 18-month implementation period that allowed governments to prepare), CITES regulations formally kicked-in today, launching protection for the five shark and two manta ray species listed on Appendix II at the 2013 CITES CoP in Bangkok.
CITES currently stands as one of the most important global conventions for the protection of nature, monitoring and regulating the use of our wild flora and fauna. John Scanlon, the Secretary-General of CITES, professed that, “Regulating international trade in these shark and manta ray species is critical to their survival and is a very tangible way of helping to protect the biodiversity of our oceans.” Under CITES, exports and imports of the newly listed species will not be allowed within member nations unless they have been authorized by the designated national authorities. Andy Cornish, leader of Sharks: Restoring the Balance, a joint initiative of WWF and the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, proclaimed that “the recent CITES listings were a victory for science over politics,” but also cautioned that the real work was just beginning, saying that “CITES regulations must first be enforced and legal fisheries must become truly sustainable and well-managed”. And this won’t be an easy task – by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it’s often unclear if and how many animals can be harvested sustainably or how long populations might have to recover before they can be fished again. Then there is the general concern that CITES regulations might not be adhered to at all…
In recent times wildlife trafficking has hit an all time high. Heads of State at Rio+20 in June 2012 acknowledged the grave economic, social and environmental impacts of wildlife trafficking, insinuating that the gross misuse of environmental resources has become a plague globally. Recommendations included stern warnings about the need to take decisive action on both the supply and demand sides of the equation. John Scanlon also warned in an intervention in June in Kenya that “generating political momentum is a means to an end not an end in itself” noting that what is really needed is sustained support for those serving on the front line – rangers, inspectors, customs officers, local and national police, security and defense forces, prosecutors and judges – and national environment agencies.” The take home message? A CITES listing is the first step, but without the critical support needed for implementation, CITES can have no real power to effect change.
Those of us living on the front line have witnessed this ‘failure to launch’ first hand and are becoming increasingly frustrated by ‘paper parks’, protective legislation for species without accompanying management plans or ineffective anti-poaching/trafficking measures- think rhinos, elephants, tropical birds, snakes, aquarium fish, etc. In some cases the political will is just not there. Certain countries, even ones that are a party to CITES, have not made a concerted effort to prioritize effective management of a CITES listed species. In other cases – and this is the case for many developing nations – the infrastructure or funding is not available to do the job effectively (despite financial support being available from CITES itself to support these nations). So what happens then? Well, in the case of my home country of Mozambique, the EIA (Environmental Investigation Agency) and the IRF (International Rhino Foundation) filed a petition this year in June accusing them of failing to effectively uphold CITES regulations (in particular for Rhino and Elephant) and called for substantial trade sanctions against Mozambique until they enacted more meaningful wildlife protections. Will this actually happen? We can only wait and see, but I for one am not holding my breath.
So what can we do in situations like these? Perhaps one of the ways that we can best support the implementation of these international treaties is to simultaneously launch campaigns that help to reduce consumer demand, or help to diminish or re-adjust the cultural value or significance of the products driving the trade or even challenge the acceptability of the harvesting practices, many of which are wasteful, cruel or unnecessary. Remember, exporters will only bother to export if there is a market for these products.
And while all of this might seem very abstract and incredibly ambitious, it is important to remember that this is how change begins – one step forward at a time. By slowly chipping away and most importantly by working together, we are starting to see some positive movement, particularly with sharks and rays. Mr. Scanlon impressively pointed out in a recent statement that, “this global collaborative effort (for the protection of sharks and rays) is the most comprehensive we have seen in the 40-year history of the Convention to prepare for the implementation of a new CITES listing.” If you are an ocean lover, this is certainly something to get excited about.
The Marine Megafauna Foundation will continue to support this positive momentum and we join many other IGOs and NGOs around the world in commending and celebrating the recent flury of proposals from Parties to list another 21 species of sharks and rays on the CMS Appendices this November in Quito, Ecuador. Two species of hammerheads, all three threshers and the silky shark have been proposed for Appendix II listing and all five sawfishes, nine devil rays, and the reef manta have been proposed for both Appendix I & II. Successful listings will encourage regional cooperation for the conservation of shared populations or call for stricter protective obligations from Parties. Currently only eight species of sharks and rays are listed on CMS, including the giant manta, which was famously the first ray species ever listed, so this really is a historic effort. In particular, we applaud the focus on rays this year, a group that has been highly overlooked previously. Sonja Fordham, President of Shark Advocates International and Deputy Chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group (SSG) recently noted that she was “particularly excited about the potential for CMS to benefit sawfishes, the world’s most endangered marine fish,” saying that, “a CMS listing can provide the impetus for urgently needed national protections in many sawfish range states and thereby help prevent the extinction of these iconic species.”
In truth, despite the somewhat bleak outlook for sharks and rays at the moment, I personally feel fortunate to be witnessing what I believe to be a paradigm shift in the way we as humans view nature. I get the feeling that, albeit slowly, we are starting to realize that our natural resources are finite and that even the immense ocean – we all once thought was inexhaustible – is vulnerable to over-harvesting and exploitation too. The mounting evidence is pretty clear; our fates are interlinked. As a result we have no choice but to embrace change and try to strive towards a healthy balance between our human needs and those of the natural world around us. Hopefully you’re excited too about the changing tide for sharks and rays and that you will choose to support this positive conservation momentum in your own individual ways.