By Dr. Thomas Althaus
Der Kiefer eines grossen Weissen Haies
(Carcharodon carcharias) kann auf dem Weltmarkt oft über
15 000 CHF kosten.
© Shark Foundation
First we need to make some comments on CITES which is misleadingly described as being an "agreement
for the protection of endangered species".
CITES refers to the "U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and
Flora". As the name clearly states, it is a trade convention serving the protection of species. CITES
deals with international traffic (imports, exports, reexport, "the bringing in from the sea") of
living animals and plants as well as - clearly recognizable - animal and plant products of certain
species. Protecting animal and plant species in their habitats is not the primary objective of CITES.
For it to become effective in the sense of protecting species, a certain species must first be
relevant to trade, i.e. it must be traded and recorded internationally. CITES thus deals with
internationally traded species. When it becomes evident that the species' population is overexploited
by this international trade, in other words when such trade even threatens and endangers a species'
existence, the respective trade bans, limitations, regulations, etc. can then be passed to ensure its
preservation, i.e. sustainable usage. It serves no purpose to put rare species endangered by a loss of
habitat or other dangerous effects - but who at the same time are not relevant from an international
trade point of view - into the CITES Appendices. Such cases call for specific local or national
protective measures and regulations.
As the following text shows, this principle also applies to the shark problem in particular. Although
there were (and are) warning signs which show that apparently sharks were and still are being
overfished, this does not generally apply to all of the approximately 460 species. The counterquestion
would then be which species and populations are affected. Since barely any catch statistics have been
compiled and neither domestic nor international trade has been recorded, and also considering the
flagrant lack of investigations on the population status of shark species, practically no data is
available which a) could either confirm the suspicion of overfishing, or b) could provide reliable
information on such a presumed decline. On this basis no motion could or can be made to put a species
on the CITES Appendices (protective levels) since this is only possible by adhering to the specific
rules of the Convention.
The respectively formulated applications must be submitted to the CITES contractual parties (known as
the Conference of the Parties COP) within a specific deadline before the conference convenes. These
applications must meet formal criteria and contain various defined biological and trade criteria. The
information must in particular be substantiated by recent literature, i.e. scientific publications,
and in all cases applications must include and consider the opinions of the affected adjoining states
on the respective species in question.
Another basic difficulty encountered in shark protection is the fact that CITES becomes effective too
late, namely only after the animals have been caught and killed, in other words after the damage has
actually been done. Basically there is almost no such thing as a distinct shark fishing industry,
instead in most cases any sharks caught are usually bycatch in nets and fishing rods. Previously any
animals who lived through such an ordeal were often freed from the nets and released. Today, however,
they are apparently considered more and more of a welcome additional catch. On their part, fishermen
still frequently do not record any catch statistics, mainly because they have had, and continue to
have problems in identifying individual species. Entire animals and animal parts were and are already
mixed on the fishing boats and are sold either indiscriminately to local, i.e. national markets (where
CITES cannot intervene), or they wound up or wind up on the international market. As concerns the
latter animal products, these are often meat and or meat products (fibers, soups, cartilage products)
which can barely be identified, let alone classified to a single species. As already mentioned in the
introduction, this fails to meet the CITES requirement calling for clear identification of the
Under these circumstances it is not surprising that CITES encounters problems when it comes to
In 1994, at the 9th CITES Conference of the Parties (COP) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (USA), sharks
were officially discussed for the first time thanks to a U.S. paper (9.58) describing the trading of
shark parts and products. Among other things the paper pointed out that about 100 out of approx. 460
shark species were being traded, especially on a national level, but that no international
organization has been g iven the responsibility for managing shark populations or even has the right
to issue recommendations on catch numbers, minimum sizes, catch periods, catch regions, protected
regions as well as catch instruments, etc. The paper also states that neither population data nor
catch statistics are registered or even available and that no details on national and international
trade can be provided, making it extremely difficult to even prove any decline in populations.
The U.S. considers its paper as a starting offensive within CITES designed to finally tackle this
problem, an initiative which, however, was not welcomed by all participants. Many said the problem had
to be solved outside the domain of CITES since the latter had enough work dealing with the animal and
plant species already listed in the appendices without worrying about 460 species of an animal group
which is not even subject of the agreement and whose problems stem primarily from resource management
rather than international trade.
Nevertheless, a resolution was passed (Conf. 9.17) calling for the parties to provide the Secretariat
with all available information related to the trading of sharks and their biological status. At the
same time, the CITES Animals Committee was instructed to check such information as well as other data
received from the FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) and international fishery
management organizations. In addition they were asked to determine the biological and trade status of
the shark species subject to international trade and summarize this in a discussion paper.
At the 10th CITES Conference of Parties (COP) in Harare (Zimbabwe) in 1997, the CITES Secretariat also
presented a paper (Doc. 10.51) compiled at the request of the Animals Committee. This 23-page document
with a 28-page appendix is based on reports and investigations stemming from the U.S. and Japan, the
IUCN, TRAFFIC-WWF and the FAO. Its theme is the biological status of sharks, factors which influence
the status of the species, the world trade of shark products, the compiling of statistics within the
fishing industry and trade and reasons why such data still has flaws, management measures,
international fishing organizations and scientific organizations and their role in the subject area,
as well as conclusions and 19 recommendations.
Among other things this report revealed that flaws in data registration in earlier as well as recent
years still make it difficult to determine actual catch volumes of individual species and that no
reliable information can be given on the development of catch activities, i.e. even when providing
reasons for a presumed increase in catch numbers. The same holds true for international trade where no
data is available on trade volume or the origin of the species traded. Furthermore, there is still a
considerable lack of knowledge on the distribution areas, population numbers, status, etc., of shark
populations in their natural habitats.
The report advised international fishery organizations to create regulations which would obligate
fisheries to deliver the foundation for gathering the respective data. And the FAO, in particular, was
also called upon to participate in and promote these projects. Also recommended were the development
and promotion of modern management and more gentle catch methods. The Conference of Parties then
passed two resolutions (10.73 and 10.74) which foresaw close cooperation between the CITES Animals
Committee and the CITES Secretariat on the one hand, and the FAO, as well as international fishery
management organizations on the other, in order to be able to establish guidelines for an action plan
to maintain and manage shark populations. At the same time in a further resolution (10.48) the
Conference of Parties was called upon to gather species-oriented statistics on shark catches and
trade. The Secretariat was also asked to hold discussions, e.g. with the World Customs Union, on the
possibility of dividing up the customs tariff (into shark meat, shark fins, shark leather, shark
cartilage and other shark products) in order to gain a differentiated amount of trade data (10.123).
As a contribution from Switzerland, and in order to set the prerequisites for a differentiated
registration of data, the Swiss Federal Veterinary Office FVO and the Swiss Federal Office of Public
Health, in a joint action changed the material description of products made of and with sharks: Since
1998 all imports to Switzerland as well as all domestically sold food(stuffs) made of or with shark
meat must bear the shark species designation.
At the 15th CITES Animals Committee Conference in 1999 the FAO included a report on actions taken
following the CITES Resolution Conf. 9.17 (Doc. AC.15.7.1), which first clearly showed that
establishing a basic foundation was a primary objective. Required were a provisional evaluation of the
biological status of diverse shark species, a revision of the standard work "Sharks of the World", an
overall survey of shark fishing and of protective measures and a survey on trade with sharks and shark
products. At the same time another objective was set, namely that of creating guidelines for domestic
action plans for the preservation and management of shark populations. According to the report diverse
activities were to be completed by the year 2000.
At the same conference an international action plan for the preservation and management of sharks
(IPOA-SHARKS) was presented which the FAO's Committee on Fisheries had passed in early 1999 (Doc.
AC.15.7.2). The emphasis here was placed on "international", i.e. the goal was to develop an effective
supraregional management aid. Eight of the most significant international fishery organizations
supported the project. The plan contains 31 points on the objectives to be reached for the sustainable
usage and maintenance of shark populations and how these can be achieved. Monitoring of the project
under the leadership of the FAO is also foreseen, as well as making possible improvements following
At the 11th CITES Conference of Parties in 2000 it was decided that the President of the Animals
Committee should follow up the implementation of this international action plan by maintaining regular
contacts with the FAO and that he report on the results at the Conference of Parties scheduled for
Meanwhile, at the 17th Conference of the CITES Animals Committee in 2001, the President already had
some good news to report: The FAO had published guidelines for implementing the IPOA-SHARKS plan
which were also designed to develop national action plans.
Two significant fishery organizations (the IATTC and the ICCAT) had already integrated the demands of
IPOA-SHARKS while working out their latest catch guidelines. Fifteen significant fishing industry
countries have performed surveys on shark populations and have announced the completion of national
Summarizing this means that the problems of determining population numbers, catch and trade data, and
establishing measures to prevent the overfishing of shark populations which, as mentioned, are
basically not part of CITES' tasks, have been delegated to those actually responsible, namely the
international fishery organizations and national fishery authorities.
These have taken on these responsibilities with commitment and - under FAO leadership - have begun to
work out appropriate plans. At the moment we must thus wait for further developments. In the interest
of shark populations we can only hope that any proposed actions and management plans as well as other
serious efforts will all bear fruit.
In conclusion, we would also recall that three motions proposing to take up three shark species were
presented at the 11th CITES Conference of Parties in 2000: The great white shark (Carcharodon
carcharias) was to be put in Appendix 1, and the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) and megamouth shark
(Cetorhinus maximus) in Appendix II. Unfortunately, none of the motions found the required majority.
Once again opponents emphatically argued that any problems should be solved outside of CITES. Among
other things they claimed that the motions could not be substantiated by citing the dangers of bycatch
and sport fishing and that these problems must be solved differently, specifically, for example, with
improved regulations and control of fisheries, improved fishing instruments and a ban on fishing great
white sharks. Great Britain was not prepared to accept the rejection of its own motion (megamouth
shark on Appendix II) and thus at the end of the conference announced its decision to put the
megamouth shark on Appendix III. This means that the same criteria are valid for both the export and
import of megamouth sharks (i.e. also shark parts and products) as for species on Appendix II. Among
other things, England was criticized for simply making decisions on any megamouth sharks caught in the
world's oceans as though the sharks were their own property. The motions for the next round of talks
in November 2002 are not yet available. Despite the failure of the initial efforts at the last
conference, a renewed surge of motions dealing with shark species is expected. As always, they deserve
to be examined based on the established CITES evaluation criteria and the particular situation of the
shark problematic as described above.
* Dr. Thomas Althaus is a member of CITES who works with
the Swiss Federal Veterinary Office (FVO).
May be published only by indicating the source: Shark Info / Dr. Thomas Althaus