Last weekend brought an important milestone for sharks. On Sunday, November 9, 2014 several shark species were finally granted protection under the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), administered by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The newly protected sharks include all three thresher species (genus alopias), the silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis), and both the great (Sphyrna mokarran) and scalloped (Sphyrna lewini) hammerhead sharks.
The protections were established during the eleventh Conference of the Parties to the CMS treaty (CoP11), which met in Quito, Ecuador to discuss global action to improve the conservation status of migratory species.
Migratory sharks are taken in targeted fisheries, primarily for their meat and fins, but also for their cartilage, liver and skin. These vital apex predators also fall victim to fisheries as unintended by-catch. The depletion of sharks in the world’s oceans is a reality that has been acknowledged as alarming by CMS. Sharks, rays and sawfish accounted for 21 of the 31 approved proposals for new listings in the CMS Appendices.
The new environmental protections are an important legal development that follow recent scientific studies suggesting a grim scenario for sharks. According to an assessment by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group (SSG), published in January 2014, of the world’s more than 1,000 shark and ray species, an estimated one quarter are threatened. In addition, a 2013 study titled “Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks” suggests that between 63 million and a staggering 273 million sharks are killed each year, globally. A 2006 report also estimated that 26 million to 73 million sharks are killed annually just to supply the global shark fin market. These data are compiled in an official CMS resolution. The alarming decline in shark populations, long a concern amongst environmental activists, has been acknowledged in the world of science — and now by international law.
The shark species now provided protection will be listed in CMS Appendix II as “migratory species which have an unfavorable conservation status and which require international agreements for their conservation and management.” This means that countries whose territories include migratory routes for these species will need to, among other measures, cooperate in protecting, conserving and restoring migratory habitats, as well as to eliminate activities and obstacles which hinder or impede migration.
Although of global scale and impact, the listing of these shark species is particularly relevant and important in certain areas, such as the Galapagos Marine Reserve, where hammerhead sharks are the very symbol of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Godfrey Merlen, long-time resident of the Galapagos Islands and current Sea Shepherd Galapagos Director of Operations said, “There are few places left on Earth where shark populations are anywhere near their numbers of 100 years ago. The Galapagos Marine Reserve is surely one of these places, where sharks are able to play their vital role as top predators in the marine ecosystem. Ensuring the survival of these sharks will help to create ecological stability in a place renowned for its unique marine wildlife.”
The CMS regulations will not only provide international coordination to conserve migratory shark habitats in neighboring range areas, such as the Galapagos Islands and Cocos Island in Costa Rica, but it will also provide important tools to strengthen law enforcement. Hugo Echeverría, head of Sea Shepherd’s environmental law project in the Galapagos said, “CMS will provide guiding elements for the application of environmental law inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve, including the recently adopted Penal Code of Ecuador, which sanctions illegal fisheries of marine species listed by international treaties, such as CMS. In Galapagos, sharks are absolutely protected by law and per by-law.”
CMS is an international treaty that aims to conserve wildlife throughout their migratory routes. To date, 120 states are Parties to this 1979 treaty. Among the marine wildlife protected under CMS, are sharks, whales, rays and other migratory marine species.
For more information on CMS, please visit: Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals