As the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) held in Johannesburg draws to a close this week, wildlife groups are celebrating the decision to give two species of shark and one ray protected status.
Thresher sharks, silky sharks, and devil rays have been listed under CITES’ protection level Appendix II – where trade is still allowed but has to be shown to be sustainable – meaning if countries continue trading these animals, they now have to prove it won’t be detrimental to their populations.
Both threshers, instantly recognizable for their long, thin, whip-like tails that stun their prey, and silky sharks, so-called because of their smooth skin, are hunted vigorously for their fins, which are considered a delicacy in China and Hong Kong. Devil rays are hunted for their meat and dried gills, which are used to make a soup to treat fevers in traditional Chinese medicine.
An estimated 100 million sharks are caught and killed in the commercial fishing industry every year. This new listing brings the total number of shark and ray species given CITES protection up to eight.
Not all CITES-protected animals are endangered, but the trade of them is carefully controlled. All three of these species are vulnerable because they are slow to mature and produce few young, and without trade management there is a danger they will not be able to populate fast enough to survive.
The voting at the summit was in favor of raising the protection level with an overwhelming 70 to 80 percent majority, with pushback only from Japan and Iceland. This is rather different to the 2013 CITES summit in Thailand, where the vote to list three sharks as protected scraped through with only one vote to spare.
"Assuming these decisions stand, this is a big win for all these species of sharks and rays as governments around the world will now have to act to reduce the overfishing that threatens them," Dr Cornish of the World Wildlife Fund told the BBC. "Countries have now bought into the idea of listing sharks and rays, they are increasingly convinced that Appendix II listing leads to better data, improved management, and a more sustainable trade – that's a real breakthrough."