CITES CoP17: A sea change for sharks and rays?

by ZSL on

As sharks and rays continue to be impacted by overfishing, decisions from  CITES CoP has got conservationists and wildlife lovers the world-over hopeful for the future. 

Countries have agreed to strengthen legislation relating to a number of marine species at the Conference of the Parties for the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES CoP) in Johannesburg in response to an on-going pressure from trade. 

But given the need to step up and change tack is often down to failure of existing measures, and populations of species, both marine and freshwater, are in decline, ZSL conservationist Dr. Matthew Gollock hopes that these listings are a step towards improving the situation for these species.

Mobula ray
Mobula rays have been given increased protection at CITES
Although it can sometimes appear that discussions around big cats, elephants and rhinos overshadow all other species at the three-yearly CITES Congress of Parties conferences, I’m here to give a shout out to their aquatic counterparts – ensuring these species too get the attention they deserve. 

Trade in both marine and freshwater species occurs due to demand for food, traditional medicines, the aquarium trade and collectors of curios. Populations of a number of different fish and invertebrate species are being directly and increasingly impacted as a result. 

Previous CITES CoP meetings have seen various species of shark and ray listed in both Appendix I - species facing grave and imminent threat of extinction in the wild - and Appendix II - those that will be at risk if current rates of international commercial trade are allowed to continue. CoP17 in Johannesburg has been no different – this time, silky sharks, the three species of thresher sharks and the nine species of mobula rays (AKA ‘Devil rays’) were all proposed for addition to Appendix II.

A key reason for all of these species being that they are low productivity – by which we mean that they tend to breed later in life and produce relatively few young - making them particularly vulnerable to the ravages of overfishing, as numbers are often not able to recover quickly enough to ensure stable populations. 

Thresher shark
Three species of thresher sharks have been moved to Appendix II
 All of these proposals for Appendix II listing were accepted by Parties at CITES CoP17, as were similar recommendations for the clarion angelfish, and the nautilus species, facing demand from collectors of their unique shells. 

It’s not all about listings in the two main appendixes, though. Parties attending CoP17 also discussed improved management for a popular aquarium species, the Banggai cardinalfish, found only on one small Indonesian archipelago.

Measures designed to improve the effectiveness of existing CITES measures relating to anguillid eels were supported by attendees.

The document outlined actions to collect more comprehensive data on trade and population of these fish – a classic example of species which might not be as immediately lovable as elephants or tigers but which, through their incredible lifecycles, actually represent in my (admittedly slightly biased) opinion the most fascinating creatures on the planet.

Silky shark
Silky sharks are vital to the ecosystem but are being unsustainably harvested for fins and meat.
So CITES CoP17 has definitely provided grounds for optimism for those delegates who, like me, are particularly focused on marine and freshwater life.

At the same ime, it’s worth remembering that securing a listing on CITES isn’t necessarily grounds to pop the champagne corks– as it often indicates that the current conservation status of those species is poor, that conservation efforts to date have not been successful.

Nevertheless, those that work with these animals remain hopeful that CITES, in concert with a range of other conservation mechanisms both at international and local levels, will ultimately help to improve the status of all these fantastic marine and freshwater species for the long-term. 

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