Juan Carlos Cantu, Mexico Programs Manager
Since 2002, Defenders of Wildlife has been working to get international protection for shark species by having them listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, known more commonly as CITES. This convention can create international rules to regulate the trade of certain endangered species, or to forbid that trade altogether. For sharks, which are being decimated by the international shark fin trade, being listed under CITES could mean an unprecedented level of protection. Unfortunately, most fishery authorities in the world just don’t want international trade of shark products regulated — especially the fin trade. Pressure from those authorities has made it very difficult to get a CITES listing for sharks. Only three species out of the known 468 have been listed so far: the great white shark, the whale shark and the basking shark.
At the 2010 CITES meeting, three shark proposals failed. Although most countries voted in favor, Japan and China were able to scare or buy enough votes to block the proposals, which would have provided protection for three hammerhead species, as well as sandbar, dusky, oceanic white tip, porbeagle and spiny dogfish sharks. And CITES meetings only occur every two to three years, so if you don’t succeed at one meeting, it can take several years to get another chance for a species to be listed.
Last year, Alejandra Goyeneachea and I worked with the Species Survival Network (a coalition of 80 NGOs) to develop a proposal to list the scalloped hammerhead, smooth hammerhead and great hammerhead sharks at the 2013 CITES conference. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the scalloped and great hammerheads are endangered worldwide, and the smooth hammerhead is vulnerable. All three species are threatened by over-exploitation, bycatch, and illegal or unreported fishing. Because they are mostly coastal species, and easier targets for fishing, one of the most serious threats to their survival is that in many countries, sharks of all ages are captured — even pregnant females or the very young — which means the populations continue to decrease. Meanwhile, the shark fin trade has increased exponentially in the past decade, and hammerhead shark fins are some of the highest valued in the industry. The protection a CITES listing could provide these species in so many countries would give them a chance to recover from the damage the fin trade has done, and hopefully one day reverse it.
Once we had the proposal, we had to find a country to present it at the convention. We concentrated on South American countries, and Brazil agreed to lead and present the proposal. Brazilian shark experts acknowledged that their hammerhead shark populations are declining fast, and that international protection would be needed to help conserve them. Then we looked for cosponsors everywhere — the more we could get, the better the proposal’s chance of being approved. One by one, countries started to accept, including Honduras, Costa Rica, Colombia and Ecuador. The European Union was difficult because it is made up of 27 countries, and several — like Italy, Spain and Greece — did not want to support it at first; but in the end, they agreed.
Then we set our sights on Mexico. We knew it would be hard because the fishery authorities in that country had sworn in several international meetings that they would not let any shark species be listed. They were even able to block Mexico from supporting any shark proposals in the last CITES meeting. We knew that we had the support of Mexico CITES management and scientific authorities, but they couldn’t override the fishery opposition. So we had to appeal to someone higher, and that meant going to the President.
It isn’t often that reaching out to a government at the presidential level can even work, much less be well received — these leaders have so much to deal with that conservation all too often takes a back seat to other issues. But we hoped that this time would be different. Through a small coalition of Mexican NGOs, we were able to get a letter to President Calderón conveying the request. And then we got a pleasant surprise. It turns out he is a scuba diver, who loves the sea and recognizes the importance of protecting its species. With just a day left to meet the CITES deadline for submission of proposals, President Calderón sent the letter confirming Mexico’s support directly to Brazil and the CITES Secretariat.
Earlier this month, the official list of the proposals for the 2013 convention was published and all our year-long work — talking to dozens of government officials, working with NGOs and scientists in so many countries — was worth it: Mexico is listed as a co-proponent of the hammerheads proposal. Mexico joins Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras and Costa Rica in this proposal, making it the most supported proposal from the Latin American region in CITES history.
Alas, the hardest part of our job is just beginning. We now have to write and translate information on the shark trade and fisheries in the three official languages of CITES (English, Spanish and French) and distribute them to most of the 176 countries in CITES requesting their support to the hammerhead proposal, so that they have the best scientific and legal information available before they decide how to vote.
We’ll have constant meetings and telephone conferences with NGOs and CITES management and scientific authorities from all over the world before the March, 2013 CITES meeting in Thailand. And then, during the two-week meeting, we will do it all over again.
At the last CITES meeting, the hammerhead proposal lost by 10 votes. But we’re doing everything we can to make sure that this time, things will be different — and the result will be a victory for shark conservation.