It’s working. People across the world are learning why sharks, like whales, are essential to marine ecosystems and why we should be concerned as their populations plummet. Sharks, many of which are listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, are finally being seen that way. The rise of shark tourism has helped: The Bahamas, for instance, which has outlawed all shark fishing, has pulled in $800 million in shark-related tourism over the past 20 years. “Most people find sharks fascinating,” says Elizabeth Wilson, the manager of the Global Shark Conservation Campaign at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “When they learn how at-risk they are, most want to do something to change the situation.”
But not everyone is onboard with saving the sharks. For all their historical animosity, Japan and China are united in their opposition to restrictions on whaling and shark hunting. Japan has argued for years, first with whales and now with sharks, that CITES has no business regulating trade on marine species, claiming that’s the job of regional fisheries management organizations. China repeated the argument; it has a financial stake as the world’s largest importer of shark fins, used in shark fin soup. But CITES regulates trade. RFMOs regulate fishing and cannot easily enforce regulations on the open seas. (Fragmentary regulation is one of the reasons that one-third of open-ocean sharks are threatened with extinction.) CITES and RFMOs complement, rather than conflict with, one another. “A CITES listing can help provide additional data to help RFMOs make more logical regulations and quotas,” says Shiffman.
Japan and China touted a second argument: that shark-trade restrictions can’t be implemented because it’s too hard to tell different shark fins apart. “That’s preposterous,” says Shiffman. “Saying fisherman can’t tell the difference between fins is lying while implying your fishermen are significantly less intelligent than fisherman across the world, which isn’t true. It’s playing dumb to get what you want.” That argument flopped this year. The delegates to the CITES meeting attended a shark fin identification workshop given by shark researcher Demian Chapman before the vote, and they could already tell the fins apart themselves.
At past meetings, Japan and China’s opposition was enough to shoot down most proposals restricting shark trade. This year, with 37 countries sponsoring the shark proposals, the two economic powerhouses couldn’t prevent the necessary two-thirds majority from adopting the proposals, though the oceanic whitetip barely scraped by with 68.6 percent of the vote.
We’ve seen this pattern of triumph over opposition before. In the 1970s, researchers became aware of how dramatically whale populations had fallen — from an estimated 4 million in the 13th century, at the dawn of commercial whaling, to about half that in 1975. The numbers were starker for certain whales: About 450 blue whales cruise the seas today, down from an estimated 210,000 before whaling began, and humpback whales are thought to be at 1 percent of their pre-whaling population.
As technology made whaling more efficient — and devastating — in the 1970s and 1980s, the conservation efforts picked up steam as well, and the familiar “Save the Whales” slogan was soon on the lips of environmentalists and schoolchildren across the world. Yet whale stocks continued to plummet, to the extent that the whaling industry itself was in danger of collapsing if it hunted the great mammals to extinction. Whale tourism had begun in the 1950s and the animals’ growing popularity raised awareness about their precarious future.