Monday, September 22, 2014

New Cites protection for sharks, rays incredibly significant

Guest Post
by William Winram


In the history of our blue planet, September 14 was a big day. That’s when real protections started for five species of shark and all species of manta rays. From that day onwards, these seven species, which are commercially valuable and traded in large numbers, have been subject to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). South Africa has a vital interest in this matter, not only because shark populations are world-renowned along South Africa’s coastline, but because the next meeting of all the 180 nations that are party to the Convention will be in Johannesburg in 2016.

In March of 2013, member nations of the Convention agreed to add porbeagle, oceanic whitetip and smooth, great and scalloped hammerhead sharks, along with all manta ray species, to Appendix II. This category means that international trade in any of these species must be proven to be sustainable and legal, or it must stop. And that is a welcome relief because these five shark species are some of the most commercially exploited species in the world.

Sharks are resilient – they have survived in our oceans for over 400 million years, even withstanding an era that included a newly discovered aquatic dinosaur that eats sharks. But now a quarter of all shark and ray species are threatened with extinction due to overfishing. Despite the popular perception of man-eating sharks hunting humans, we are far more dangerous to sharks, than they are to us.

Demand for shark products, including fins, liver oil and meat, has led to the overfishing of sharks for many years and has decimated populations worldwide.

More than 100 million sharks are caught and killed in commercial fisheries every year. And because sharks are slow-growing and mature late, only bearing a few young over the course of their lifetime, they are not able to recover from those huge losses.

I have been intimately connected to the ocean almost my entire life. It has been my workplace and my playground. I understand how essential a healthy ocean is to all life on our blue planet. Sharks are a vital part of the marine ecosystem. They are incredibly important to the health of our oceans. Our oceans produce 50 per cent of the oxygen in the air that we breathe. We cannot afford to destroy them any more than we already have. In essence, healthy oceans need sharks.

Research has shown that a reef shark caught and sold brings in only U.S. $108. That same shark, alive and keeping the reef ecosystem in check, can bring in more than U.S. $1.9 million in ecotourism dollars over the course of its lifetime. In South Africa, it’s been reported that tourists visiting to shark dive account for as much as 50 percent of local business sales.

The bottom line – sharks have a better economic value alive than dead.

The new CITES listings are incredibly significant. They show that the global community understands the critical need to protect shared sharks in our shared ocean waters. All five shark species that gained protections on Appendix II of the Convention on September 14 are pelagic, which means they are highly migratory. So a shark seen swimming along the West Australian coastline could very well be the same shark seen off the coast of South Africa. That makes these global protections all the more necessary.

In two years, South Africa will have the chance to host one of the world’s most important conservation meetings. It will be an opportunity to show the world South Africa’s commitment to shark conservation. And by then, let’s hope the decline of these magnificent seven sharks and rays has stopped and the journey of recovery has well and truly begun.

William Winram is Oceans Ambassador for the Global Marine and Polar Programme of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and a freediving world record holder. You can follow him on Twitter.

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