Overexploitation threatens the future of many large animals including sharks and rays. These sleek and majestic animals are often caught as incidental "bycatch" in longline fisheries or targeted specifically for their fins, wings, gill plates, meat, oil, teeth and cartilage. The combination of the "bycatch" fishery and unregulated, international trade in shark products is responsible for the precipitous decline of many species. Indeed, research suggests that some shark species have declined by 75 to 90 percent in the past 15 years.
One mechanism for regulating the international trade of plants and wildlife is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES is an agreement among governments from 183 member countries that provides a framework for monitoring and controlling international trade of species at risk. It is recognized globally as one of the most effective and best-enforced international conservation agreements and a powerful instrument for biodiversity conservation.
In response to the growing threats to shark and ray populations, many CITES member countries, including the United States, agreed recently to co-sponsor listing proposals to control trade of several commercially valuable shark and ray species. A listing on CITES would better ensure that products from sharks and rays that are traded internationally come from sustainably-managed fisheries that do not drive depletion of wild populations.
As advocates for the conservation of sharks and other ocean species, the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP) - a partnership of select U.S. public aquariums including Shedd Aquarium - applauds the sponsorship efforts and is raising awareness ahead of the September - October meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP17) in Johannesburg, South Africa. There, member countries will review proposals and vote to implement Appendix II listing controls on international trade of sponsored species, including nine species of devil rays, three species of thresher sharks and the silky shark.
Why should we care about sharks swimming in our oceans? Sharks have survived for 450 million years and yet they may be gone within the next few decades because of our negligence. In addition to this philosophical introspection, sharks are critically important apex predators and maintain healthy ocean ecosystems and fisheries, which are both critical for billions of people around the world, especially the world's poorest. Currently, marine fisheries provide a sixth of the animal protein people eat, including the seafood at any restaurant. However, these keystone species - sharks - that help maintain ocean fisheries are quickly losing the battle against over-exploitation and desperately need international protection under CITES.
Ten states and their citizens have acted in the past to protect sharks and we are asking for similar support. In 2012, with backing from residents, Shedd's home state of Illinois became the first inland state to implement a comprehensive ban on the trade, sale or distribution of shark fins. More broadly, in June, Congress introduced legislation that would ban the trade of shark fins widely in the U.S. And, this September, the ACP is hoping to amplify this effort internationally through CITES.
To have the proposals adopted, we need two-thirds of the CITES member countries to cast a supporting vote. Increased international support and advocacy could increase the odds. You can make your voice heard by digitally "signing" a petition through the #SharkStanley social media movement, which will be presented at the CoP17.
Additionally, you can take immediate action by reducing your personal demand for the international trade of shark and ray products by purchasing items that were not created at the expensive of sharks and rays. You can also sign a petition to support the recently-introduced bipartisan Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act.