Delegates attending the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meeting in Doha, voted more than two-to-one to list the porbeagle under its Appendix II, which requires exporting countries to ensure that international trade is legal and will not harm the survival of the species.
The porbeagle proposal succeeded by only one vote, after extensive lobbying for 18 months by EU delegations particularly Germany, and could still be overturned in plenary on Thursday.
Sources say Canada, one of the most trenchant fishing countries and an ally of Japan on other votes, surprised everyone during the debate by saying that a CITES listing would help with their national management of the NW Atlantic porbeagle stock.
Earlier in the day, delegates voted to reject similar bids to protect the hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks, favoured by the Asian finning trade. The spiny dogfish also failed to get protection.
Currently, harvesting and commerce of the porbeagle – a temperate water shark which gestates for nine months and can live up to 65 years — is unregulated internationally.
Stocks have collapsed to about ten percent of historic levels in the Mediterranean and the northeast Atlantic, and have declined elsewhere.
Fished mainly for its meat rather than its fins, the species is listed as “critically endangered” in those regions, and as “vulnerable” globally.
As with all the marine proposals, the porbeagle bid was opposed by Japan, with Argentina, China and Iceland also speaking out against it.
The measure was submitted by the European Union, a major market for porbeagle meat, along with the small island nation Palau, for which sharks are more valuable alive — to attract scuba tourism — than dead.
At the previous meeting of CITES in The Hague in 2007, the species was denied Appendix II status in a tight vote, as was the spiny dogfish, which was also getting a second chance in Doha.
Canada noted that new data on the biological status of the species had convinced it to reverse position after 2007 and favour trade protection.
Both the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), and the secretariat of CITES also favoured the listing.
“Appropriate management is urgently needed,” an FAO official said.
The Pacific nation of Palau, which last year created the first ever shark sanctuary, joined the United States in introducing the proposal to list the scalloped hammerhead shark and four look-alike species.
It called on countries to protect the species so they can be fished into the future.
Japan, which has already successfully seen off an export ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna and regulations on the coral trade, argued that better enforcement, not trade restrictions was the answer. It also complained it would be difficult to differentiate the hammerheads from other species and would deprive poor fishing nations of much needed income.
It was joined in opposing the proposal by other countries dependent on the trade, including Singapore and Indonesia which catches the most sharks.
The voting was as follows:
• Porbeagle sharks passed by a vote of 86 for, 42 against and 8 abstentions.
• Scalloped hammerhead sharks failed by a vote of 75 for, 45 against and 14 abstentions. Known for their distinctive silhouettes, these sharks have declined by as much as 98% in some regions. Great and smooth hammerheads, vulnerable to overfishing because of the similarity of their fins, also were included in this proposal as “look-alike” species.
• Oceanic whitetip sharks, which failed by a vote of 75 for, 51 against and 16 abstentions. Mostly because their large fins have been valued at $45 – $85 per kilogram, oceanic whitetip populations have declined by as much as 90 percent in the central Pacific Ocean and 99 percent in the Gulf of Mexico.
• Spiny dogfish sharks, which failed by a vote of 60 for, 67 against and 11 abstentions. Spiny dogfish has one of the longest gestation periods for any vertebrate on the planet – up to two years – making the species extremely susceptible to overfishing.
Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation for the Pew Environment Group, said: “Sharks have been on our planet for more than 400 million years, but if governments do not act, many shark species will not last. Most species reproduce late in life, have few young and simply do not have the capacity to recover from commercial extraction and global trade
“The shark fin trade which is responsible for the killing of up to 73 million sharks annually remains largely unregulated,” he added.
“Despite scientific data showing that many shark populations are plummeting, international fisheries management bodies and now international conservation forums have favored commerce over protection. Individual nations need to answer the call to protect threatened species if sharks are to remain in our oceans.”
Oliver Knowles from Greenpeace International said: “The devastating result this morning sees hammerheads and oceanic whitetip sharks join the Atlantic bluefin, and red and pink corals, as victims of short-term economic interest winning out over efforts to save species from extinction at this Cites meeting.”