The World of Sharks Podcast

Tackling the fin trade with CITES

Show notes

Before diving into the complicated world of international policy, we start by getting to know Luke first. Luke grew up on the South Welsh coast and spent a lot of time rock pooling as a child [4.44]. It was during this time that an oil tanker ran aground just off the coast of Pembrokeshire, nearby to where Luke lived, spilling thousands of tonnes of crude oil into the sea. It was this moment that ignited a passion for ocean conservation in Luke, an interest that was cemented while visiting more tropical climates. Experiencing the marine biodiversity of other regions demonstrated for Luke just how depleted the more industrialised coastlines of the northern hemisphere were, but also the fragility of these systems. He has since dedicated his life to conserving and restoring the marine environment, largely from a policy perspective.

Sharks first came into Luke’s life while he was working for the UK government [6.56]. He stresses that he was passionate about protecting the ocean as a whole – not a particular species or group of species – and saw his career in campaigning and policy-making as a route to do that. Along the way, sharks and rays found him. Early on in Luke’s career, people were becoming more aware of the threats facing sharks and rays, particularly the fin trade. As this awareness and a drive to act grew, Luke was increasingly finding projects to do with sharks and rays landing on his desk. Quickly they became the focus of all of his time, as more and more decision-makers, scientists and conservationists realised that there was a very small window to save endangered sharks and rays from going extinct. 

Momentum for shark and ray conservation has grown exponentially over the last two decades, something that Luke attributes to the hard work and dedication of researchers, charities, conservation organisations and educators who have brought the plight of sharks and rays to the general public [10.07]. As someone who has worked in government, and now advises government on effective conservation policies, Luke recognises the importance of public backing in getting politicians to take notice. A lot of work has gone into “spreading the message” that we are in danger of losing sharks and rays and garnering public support, which has translated into political momentum. Another aspect of this is presenting the latest scientific data in a way that is accessible to policy-makers and captures their attention. For example, a key part of Luke’s presentations is a table that compares the reproductive rate of shark and ray species with iconic land animals – like elephants or tigers – and some commercial fish species. He says that this is a real “eye-opener”, as it starkly demonstrates that sharks and rays are more similar to those terrestrial species than they are to other fish, in terms of how vulnerable they are to exploitation due to their slow reproductive rates. It’s a compelling message that highlights how you cannot manage shark fisheries in the same way that you would for bony fish, and, Luke hopes, one that will persuade policy-makers to act fast to save these species.

CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, is one political tool that can be used to protect sharks and rays [15.47]. It is an international agreement between nations that aims to protect endangered species by regulating and monitoring their trade. CITES works by listing species on two ‘appendices’. Species at the greatest risk of extinction are listed on Appendix I, which effectively bans all commercial trade in this species (elephants and the great whales are listed here, for example). For species listed on Appendix II, trade can continue but it is subjected to certain controls. This includes a scientific assessment and certain permits or licenses. Essentially, if a species is listed on Appendix II, you need to demonstrate that its trade can be sustainable, traceable and legal across the whole supply chain – from the point it is captured, to where the products are eventually sold.

In comparison to other international treaties, CITES is particularly effective [17.26]. The main reason for this is that its structure ensures a high level of compliance. Nations can voluntarily sign up to the convention, but in doing so they are agreeing to cooperate and adhere to the regulations stated by the convention. If they don’t, they can be stopped from trading that particular species or even other species listed by the convention, and other countries in the convention may not continue to trade with them. There are currently 184 nations signed in to CITES, and over 30, 000 species listed: that’s a lot of money and other benefits that you could potentially lose by not being able to trade. This creates a strong incentive to comply.

New species can be listed on CITES during the Conference of the Parties, or ‘CoP’, which is where all the nations signed up to the convention meet and make decisions [19.39]. What usually happens is a particular country will ‘lead’ a proposal to add a new species, backed by other nations and put together by a host of scientists, conservation organisations and other actors who want to see trade in this species regulated. All parties will view the proposal, and then will vote on whether to adopt it, reject it, or allow the species to be listed with certain amendments. And here is another reason why CITES is particularly effective. Other international treaties require consensus in order to adopt a new regulation or measure, which is extremely hard to come by (imagine how difficult it is to get all your relatives to agree on something, let alone hundreds of nations with different interests). But CITES requires a two-thirds majority, which sometimes makes it easier to get new proposals across the line.

Given that the leading threat to sharks and rays is overfishing, driven by the international trade in shark and ray products, CITES can be a powerful tool in their conservation. But it is only within the last two decades that sharks and rays began to be listed [21.44]. Historically, marine species hadn’t really been considered except for the great whales, thanks to public outcry regarding the decimation of these species due the unregulated whaling industry. But CITES had largely steered clear of fish due to political reasons. In the early 2000s, large, iconic species – including the great white, whale and basking shark – were added as largely a ‘safe’ option, as they weren’t largely commercially traded or exploited, but were well-known and revered. Later, as information about the shark fin trade came to light, more countries began to propose more shark and ray species. But it took almost a decade before more these proposals started to be adopted – in large part due to the vested interests of certain nations, who blocked them. Over time, scientific evidence demonstrating the shocking declines in shark and ray populations, and linking those declines to overfishing and international trade, began to build up. In conjunction with the monumental effort from certain organisations, charities and researchers to communicate this science, the need to add more sharks and rays to CITES became more and more difficult to ignore. In 2013, the first commercially traded species were added to CITES – a landmark moment that really kickstarted a steady tidal wave of new listings, culminating in the historic decision to bring 90% of the fin trade under regulation in 2022. Overnight, CITES went from listing 46 species of shark and ray to over 140, with the addition of the entire family of requiem sharks and small hammerheads. These are some of the most traded species in the world, and integral to the billion-dollar shark fin trade. Needless to say, it was a highly controversial proposal. And the fact that it was passed with no amendments is testament to the incredible effort of scientists, governments, policy-makers and conservationists who, across the last decade, have worked tirelessly behind the scenes.

The road to CoP 19 in Panama was long and arduous, and the road ahead is no less challenging [32.40]. In the year since, Luke and many others like him have now been working to implement and enforce the new regulations. This has involved a lot of workshops, strategy meetings and the development of new tools to help people on-the-ground to identify CITES-listed species as they come through customs. In a way, the new listing will make things slightly easier. Previously, customs officials would have had to sift through an enormous pile of fins to locate the CITES-listed species, a process that was terribly long and difficult. Without the shark’s body attached, many fins look extremely similar to others, and scientists had works extremely hard to provide customs officials with tools to ID fins more easily – such as accessible genetics testing kits and ID guides. Now that over 90% of the fin trade is listed, most of the pile will consist of fins from regulated species making inspections much simpler. However, a more difficult part is now assessing fisheries for these species, making sure that they can continue sustainably. If not, species will need to go on a ‘prohibited’ list and nations will need to decide on a course of action to enforce this. This also comes with a lot more paperwork, as fisheries and landings data is required and species will need to be identified at point of landing and traced all the way to point of sale. Over the last year, Luke and many other colleagues around the world have been working to support nations in implementation, developing and refining tools that will make enacting the new trade regulations efficient and manageable.

And, even just a year later, we are seeing progress [34.20]. One of the major problems regarding shark fisheries is that up until now, they have been allowed to go, for the most part, unmanaged and unregulated, with little protections for the species. But with the new listings, many fisheries are being evaluated for the first time. Luke says that the CITES compliance committees – meetings between governments that are almost like mini-CoPs – have identified over ten countries where fisheries for certain CITES-listed species are not thought to be sustainable. Over the next two years, there is a formal compliance action which could lead to these countries being prohibited from trading those species. This is really where CITES has its teeth – multi-lateral enforcement that can place pressure on governments, alongside equipping them with the tools and policies needed to encourage sustainable fishing.

The progress at CITES is exciting, as it signals political support for shark and ray conservation at a level that we have not seen until now [42.07]. But, there is still decades of hard work to go. Enforcement of these rules and regulations is no easy feat, especially as different nations will have varying capacities to implement them. But, it is a very positive place to be starting from. Luke says he sees the last two decades as “shark conservation 1.0”. What comes next is the second phase – but, with all the momentum, drive and passion for sharks around the world that there is now, in comparison to then, here’s hoping it’s onwards and upwards.


About our guest

Luke Warwick

Director, Sharks and Rays Conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

Luke directs the Sharks and Rays Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society. He is a shark and policy expert, who has worked on the issue since 2006, helping shape the programs of work that established the first listings of commercially exploited sharks and rays under CITES, and their implementation in priority countries. A former marine species conservation policy lead for the UK Government, and Director of the Pew Charitable Trusts Global Shark Conservation Campaign, he now leads WCS’s global shark conservation work, with over 10 project sites in shark conservation hotspots around the world, from Argentina, to Gabon, India and Indonesia.

Find out more about WCS’s shark work here!

You can also follow Luke on Twitter (@WCSsharks) or on LinkedIn.