One Life: World Wildlife Conservation Day 2022 | Shark Conservation

04 December 2022

By Dave Neale, Animal Welfare Director, Animals Asia

Today is World Wildlife Conservation Day, a day for us to reflect on how our actions are impacting upon wild animal populations. 

Throughout much of the last couple of weeks, conservation experts, wildlife trade and government representatives have been meeting in Panama as part of the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) conference of the parties, discussing the conservation status of animal and plant species and the implications this has on the continued trade in such species.

On this World Wildlife Conservation Day we take the opportunity to celebrate one of the major outcomes from this conference and reflect upon where we should go next. 

The future, plight and protection of sharks

For many years now the plight of shark species has been discussed with particular concern over the continued fishing of shark populations to supply the demand for shark fin soup, and how this is causing shark numbers to drastically decline.

A keystone species

With fossil records dating back 400 million years, sharks have outlived the dinosaurs and many other forms of life currently on earth. There are more than 1,000 species of sharks and rays within our oceans, and sharks are considered a 'keystone species,' having such an impact on their habitat that without them, the entire ecosystem in which they live would be dramatically altered. 

Vulnerable to extinction

Sharks are particularly vulnerable to extinction due to many species taking over 10 years to reach sexual maturity and their low fertility rates. This coupled with catches estimated to be in the region of 100 million per year, and population declines of 71% in the past 10 years for some species and you can quickly see why they are in need of greater protection.

CITES’ pledge to protect sharks

Due to their crucial role as ecosystem engineers, we are thankful that delegates at the global CITES summit approved a plan to protect additional shark species and to ensure that protection for species such as the Blue Shark remained in place despite proposals to allow more trade. This agreement is a global consensus that is being hailed as a move that could drastically reduce the lucrative and cruel shark fin trade.

The measures adopted will apply to 54 species of requiem sharks, 37 species of guitarfish, and six species of hammerheads which have been hunted to the brink of extinction for shark fin soup. Requiem sharks are a shark family that includes migratory, live-bearing sharks such as blue sharks, tiger sharks and bull sharks, all species that are heavily targeted for their fins. 

The trade in sharks has unfortunately not been stopped completely but with many species now being listed as CITES Appendix II, the legal trade will be tightly controlled in an attempt to avoid already depleted populations dropping further towards extinction.

The crucial next step will be in the implementation of the regulations to ensure that fisheries around the world reduce their overall shark catch for the sake of the survival of these magnificent animals, and fisheries managers can ensure that the illegal trade is  addressed and curtailed.

How did we get here?

But while we celebrate this success and wait to see how this impacts shark populations globally, we must reflect on how we arrived at such a dire situation.

The demand for shark fin remains high in a number of Asian countries, despite high profile public awareness campaigns, shark fin soup continues to be viewed by many as a delicacy and is enjoyed by the very wealthy, often at weddings and expensive banquets. 

Unsustainable and unregulated trade has led to the decimation of many species and the suffering of millions of individuals that are captured and have their fins removed whilst fully conscious being thrown back into the ocean to die from blood loss or suffocation.

The new agreements may help to limit the trade and reduce the pressure on shark populations but they will not address the suffering of those still caught legally and illegally for consumption. 

A global shift in attitude 

To address this we must see a fundamental shift in our attitudes and behavior towards animals that we share our planet with. To see animals as the individuals they truly are and not a commodity for us to haggle over during international gatherings. 

On World Wildlife Conservation Day we take comfort in the fact that new measures have been agreed to limit the trade in these majestic animals, but we remain aware of the challenges we face in convincing people across the world that wild animals have their own right to live their lives free of our persecution.

Read more: World Wildlife Conservation Day 2021