Swimming with sharks: Dr Amanda Vincent on CITES and Japan

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that more than 100 million sharks are killed each year, largely to fuel the shark fin trade. Over the past century, 90 per cent of the world’s sharks have disappeared.

This month, Japan announced it would reject a March 11 decision by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to restrict cross-border trade of five species of sharks: oceanic whitetip, porbeagle and three species of hammerhead shark. Two-thirds of the 178 member nations supported a vital agreement that exports of these shark species could only proceed if they did not threaten wild populations.  Japan has now refused to comply with this agreement and is the only country to opt out of all 8 CITES listings for sharks.

Prof. Amanda Vincent, Canada Research Chair in Marine Conservation and director of University of British Columbia’s Project Seahorse, was instrumental in getting all 48 species of seahorses added to the CITES protection list in 2002. Her latest study, published this month in Fish and Fisheries, shows CITES could play a critical role in helping secure survival of key sharks species in the face of overfishing.

Q: Japan has filed a “reservation” against the CITES listing of the five species of shark, what does this mean?

Essentially it means that Japan is not going to comply with CITES regulations, and will not guarantee that its shark exports are sustainable.  CITES member nations have 90 days to file a reservation on any new listings.  Japan had done so previously for seahorses, basking sharks, whale sharks, white sharks and seven species of whales.

Despite its reservations, Japan must still comply with CITES regulations if it wishes to trade with all other CITES countries.  Because no major shark-importing nation took out a reservation, Japan is essentially on its own. Happily, only Guyana also took out a reservation for all new shark listings, although Greenland, Iceland and Yemen took out reservations for one or more species.

Q: There were fears that China might take out a reservation.  What did it have to lose or gain by its eventual decision to conform to the international agreement for sharks?

We are pleased that China, in particular, has maintained its commitment to implementing CITES and will require source nations for sharks (including Japan) to guarantee sustainability of their exports.  China has previously also avoided reservations for seahorses (for which it is by far the major consumer) and the other three species of sharks listed some years ago.

China is exploring a growing environmental and conservation awareness.  By complying with CITES, China avoids Japan’s negative reputation and gains international approval and sustainable trade.  China also demonstrates its capacity to withstand pressure from industry engaging in unsustainable practices.  My Project Seahorse team has had good relations with the Chinese on seahorses and CITES does not appear to have threatened their supply notably..

Q: Why is it important to keep sharks on the CITES listing?

We need to draw on all possible ways to protect sharks from overfishing.  Cumulatively, however, it was clear that existing measures lacked the teeth to protect sharks from unsustainable uses.  As we say in our paper, CITES introduces a new and critical imperative to this debate, bringing a different (trade-oriented vs fishery-oriented) approach and, most unusually legal enforcement if needed.

CITES supports and complements other measures without supplanting them. It has certainly generated action for seahorses that we would never have got another way, in both Vietnam and Thailand for example — and also in countries like Indonesia that are not quite so under the gun.

Prof. Vincent was the first to study seahorses under water. She has just returned from Asia where she was working with governments on CITES protection of endangered marine species. Follow her on Twitter at @AmandaVincent1. The Fish and Fisheries paper is available here.

Photo by Shawn Heinrichs, courtesy of UBC.