Holly Edwards

Document Type



Humans have long had a fear of sharks. As one of the greatest marine predators, sharks easily receive a reputation as killing machines; in reality, however, sharks have far more to fear from humans than humans do from sharks. In 2005, there were only sixty-one confirmed cases of unprovoked shark attacks on humans worldwide. Meanwhile, humans kill roughly 100 million sharks for their fins each year. The past three decades have witnessed a dramatic increase in the international shark trade, resulting in an estimated eighty-nine percent decrease in some Atlantic shark species, such as the hammerhead. Given sharks’ place as apex predators in the marine food chain, their disappearance from the world’s oceans poses a major ecological concern. They play a vital part in maintaining ecological balance by weeding out sick and unhealthy members of both predatory and prey species and leaving only healthy members of those species to breed. As apex predators, sharks are not used to mortality threats and thus do not naturally need high rates of population growth to sustain their populations. Their slow growth and maturation, long reproductive cycles, low fecundity, and long life spans prevent sharks from adapting to rising mortality rates resulting from exploitation by global fisheries. Shark populations, increasing at the low rate of one to two percent each year, cannot compete with the significantly larger rate of population decrease caused by overfishing. In the case of the spiny dogfish, which increases naturally at an annual rate of 2.3%, the 75% decline in reproductive females since 1988 has led to a record low number of pups since 1997, as well as a decline in pup size and survival rate. Taking into account the combination of low reproductive potential and current fishing mortality rates, the Regional Stock Assessment Review Committee (SARC) issued a projection in 2003 forecasting a collapse of spiny dogfish stock. Thresher shark populations face a similar threat. After the expansion of thresher fisheries in the early 1980s, thresher populations have steadily declined. With females giving birth to only four to six pups annually, the species has not been able to keep up with the mortality rates from overfishing. In response to the disturbing trend of plummeting shark populations, several international organizations have developed guidelines and regulations to help conserve and manage shark populations throughout the world. The three international measures most relevant to shark conservation are IPOA-Sharks developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), CITES, and CMS. Each agreement operates independently from the others, with its own strengths and weaknesses. Although efficient implementation of each agreement would allow all three to act in concert to improve shark conservation, none of the agreements are currently operating efficiently to protect shark populations. The governing bodies must begin to address the weaknesses in these agreements to increase their individual effectiveness and their overall ability to protect sharks from the threats of international trade. IPOA-Sharks is a voluntary measure designed by the FAO to promote the conservation and management of shark populations worldwide, with its ultimate focus on sustainable use. IPOA-Sharks applies to all shark species and provides a framework for shark conservation and management. It emphasizes the need for increased research on the biology and identification of sharks, as well as increased record-keeping and reporting of catch and trade data. IPOA-Sharks calls on countries, in whose waters sharks are caught, to develop, implement, and monitor national plans of action (Shark Plans) consistent with the framework of IPOA-Sharks. Although the language used in IPOA-Sharks urges states to implement its recommended measures, it provides neither rewards for those states that cooperate nor sanctions against those that do not. As a result, few states have bothered to fully implement Shark Plans—by October 2004 only 5 out of 113 nations reporting shark landings to the FAO have developed either shark assessment reports (SARs) or Shark Plans. Moreover, catch and trade data that countries actually reported to the FAO are estimated to be grossly inaccurate due to a combination of under-reporting of legal trade and unreported black market trade. Analyses conducted by both internal and independent researchers have concluded that the total estimated catch is likely twice that of the FAO recorded catch. Finally, successful implementation of IPOA-Sharks suffers from insufficient biological research, training, and enforcement of national Shark Plans due to a shortage of funding. CITES, which restricts international trade that threatens the survival of endangered species, faces some of the same factors hampering implementation of IPOA-Sharks—reliance on national regulations, insufficient funding and training, and black market trade. CITES’ ability to protect sharks is further limited because it extends only to those species involved in international trade and listed on one of its three Appendices. Currently, out of the 197 shark species identified as endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the CITES Animals Committee, only three shark species are listed on Appendix II: the great white, basking, and whale sharks. CMS, which was formed to protect migratory species from endangerment, faces a similar limitation. Sharks are highly migratory species, and CMS thus has the potential to offer them protection. Yet CMS, like CITES, covers only those species included in one of the two CMS Appendices. Unfortunately, the CMS Appendices currently include only three shark species: the great white shark and basking shark on Appendices I and II, and the whale shark on Appendix II. The general weaknesses of IPOA-Sharks, CITES, and CMS result from limited coverage of shark species, difficulties in obtaining national implementation of conservation measures, insufficient funding for research and training at a national level, and black market trade in shark products. To address these shortcomings, the governing bodies of IPOA-Sharks, CITES, and CMS must find ways to both compel and encourage states to implement shark conservation measures and report shark trade data accurately to the FAO. The governing bodies can address issues of black market trade by tightening enforcement through increasing supervision of fisheries and by relying on RFMOs to help manage shark fishing. The governing bodies can mitigate funding problems by applying to the Global Environment Facility for assistance in financing, training, research, and enforcement programs. Finally, CITES and CMS can increase their coverage of shark species by acquiring more accurate data on shark biology, populations, and trade; mitigating the effect of reservations on conservation efforts; promoting public awareness; and increasing lobbying efforts targeting parties to CITES and CMS. By adopting these proposals, existing shark conservation measures provided by IPOA-Sharks, CITES, and CMS can more effectively afford sharks protection from overexploitation in international trade. Part II of this Comment provides a biological explanation of why sharks are especially susceptible to overfishing. Part III examines the threat of international trade to shark populations—namely, directed catch for their meat and fins, and bycatch in tuna and swordfish longline fisheries. Part IV describes current international measures promoting conservation and management of sharks, focusing on IPOA-Sharks, CITES, and CMS. This section also discusses the shortcomings of these measures. Finally, Part V suggests several steps to more effectively implement existing shark conservation measures. Increasing the efficient implementation of existing international shark trade regulations will allow the international community to better protect threatened shark populations and retain a valuable marine resource for future generations to enjoy.



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