Sharks overview

The founders of CITES – including IUCN – never intended the Convention to become deeply involved with the conservation of marine species. That explains why when CITES held its first Conference of the Parties in 1976, sharks were not an agenda item. It took until 2002 at CoP-12 in Santiago, Chile, before the first listing of sharks in CITES’ appendix II were successful. At CoP-12 the listings of the basking and whale sharks, neither of which were significant in international trade, were proposed on the basis that this was a one-off exception that would not set a precedent. But in reality this ‘exceptional’ inclusion in the appendices turned into an avalanche of listings that has so far smothered 46 species of sharks.

The fact is, besides mostly small boats fishing near-shore for sources of protein for local consumption, most sharks are not commercially fished but caught as unavoidable bycatch in longline and purse seine fisheries, especially for tuna.

For animal activist and welfare NGOs sharks have become a proxy in the battle to put a stop to tuna fishing, because wherever there are tuna, there are hungry, predatory sharks. While sharks themselves are not targeted by tuna fishing fleets, they do add some value when caught, especially to crews who sell shark meat and fins to make additional income. Furthermore, the claim to be concerned about preserving shark species provides NGOs with ammunition to promote their campaign to establish large-scale no-take marine protection zones.

The problem is that CITES is not the right regulatory body to conserve most shark species. Shark listings in CITES’ appendices has caused actual harm to conservation efforts being pursued by other more appropriate management authorities.

The proliferation of shark listings in CITES’ appendices has encouraged non-compliance with regulatory strictures and encouraged criminality. The harsh truth is that commercial fisheries and their Parties to CITES have limited capability to make the required non detrimental findings (NDFs) because there is scant region-wide assessments of shark stock. Hence, the mass listing of migratory shark species in CITES’ appendices has resulted in situations in which, as the FAO says, ‘previous trade ceases, trade continues without proper CITES documentation (i.e. illegal trade) and/or trade continues with inadequate NDFs’. In other words, poorly conceived and implemented listings in CITES’ appendices boosts illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

This retrograde regulatory environment undermines efforts by other management bodies to reduce shark finning and mortality by incentivising the live release of sharks in non-targeted fisheries. CITES’ involvement in shark conservation has also weakened regulatory regimes which rely on cooperation with fishers to improve data collection and capture techniques, which are designed to ensure that the industry entangles fewer sharks in the first place.

The controversy over the listing of sharks is an example of how CITES’ interest in the world’s oceans has embroiled it in a conflict with regional fisheries management organisations and, sometimes, the FAO, over the efficacy of listing numerous commercially fished marine species in its appendices.

The advocates for listing more and more sharks refuse to acknowledge that CITES’ conservation management framework was devised to conserve land species threatened by trade. In other words, CITES’ instruments are mostly not suitable for conserving marine species. This is perhaps the reason why it is so hard to discover any measurable conservation benefits from including sharks in CITES’ appendices, despite the fact that some species have been listed for almost twenty years.

Examples of misguided listings in CITES’ appendices include basking, Great white, hammerhead, porbeagle, short and long mako, silky and whale sharks. (See: Securing better implementation of marine fish species in the appendices CoP-18 Doc. 12.)

Latest news


Hands off all sharks?

At CITES’ CoP-18 the assembled NGOs made sharks their iconic species of choice, knocking elephants


A RESTRICTED INVITATION TO ASSESS AND EXPAND Assembled by Michelle Batterham The Problem A paper

Key fact about 

IWMC Feature

Conservation Influencers

Conservation Influencers is a searchable directory of the animal activist, environmental and ecological lobby. It examines the history, mission, methodology and reputation of NGOs to assess their impact on the global conservation cause.

Franz Weber Foundation

From 1990 until 2015, Franz Weber Foundation (FFW) managed the Fazao-Malfakassa National Park in Togo, which was, according to an in-depth investigation by Duke University, ‘established by forcing the local communities off their land and without taking into consideration their point of view’. That same study cited convincing evidence from reports published in 1990, confirming that competition for land use was already ‘creating conflict between the local communities and park managers’. In 2015 Togo refused to renew FFW’s contract because, the report says, ‘local communities were still excluded from the management of the natural resources of their land’ and FFW had ‘failed to fulfil its contract’. Franz Weber Foundation plays a major role within CITES because it funds and manages from Switzerland the African Elephant Coalition (AEC), which represents 32 African range states, some of which have barely any elephants and others none at all. Contrary to the wishes of the range states in Southern Africa, which manage most of the world’s wild elephant populations, the AEC at CITES’ CoPs repeatedly tables proposals to put all of the world’s elephants in appendix I. And the AEC uses its voting power to keep in place prohibitions on ivory sales and all other trade in elephant-related derivatives, including skins and hair, which Southern African nations wish to legalise.