Today was a day to celebrate as CITES, the convention regulating the international trade of wild plants and animals, finally restricted the trade in key shark species and took steps to curb illegal logging.
Although you often hear talk that global environmental politics is dead and buried, days like today – when CITES finally showed its teeth and proved it has some bite – suggest that the death of multilateralism is highly exaggerated.
CITES currently has 177 member governments and usually makes headlines because it deals with the trade in impressive looking elephants, rhinos and tigers – such as Thailand committing to end the ivory trade at this year's meeting.
But CITES deals with a lot more than elephants: it has some 5,000 animal species and 29,000 plant species on its over-full plate.
It almost manages to deal with that workload because, unlike many UN agreements, it does not operate by consensus. If no common agreement can be found, parties put a decision to a vote.
Even more importantly though, CITES can do more than ask governments to follow through on what they committed to: it can punish governments that export more than what CITES allows by imposing trade sanctions that hurt.
In recent years, CITES had sadly refrained from using these powers, despite the need, and failed to make progress on key issues such as shark protection. Like other global agreements, it had been hijacked by short-term economic interests – with governments acting as servants to big business.
As a result, several commercially valuable but threatened fish species – such as Atlantic bluefin tuna, numerous types of shark, red and pink corals – had failed to be listed as protected species by CITES meetings in recent years.
That is why the listing of five shark species and two manta rays today is all the more sweet. This time, the forces of darkness lost – and CITES did what it was established to do: protect our global commons over private interests.
Our allies Pew and the cites4sharks.org coalition should be applauded for working tirelessly to ensure that these species are protected. Gratitude should also be expressed to those governments that stood up for sharks and the environment.
But this is not a champagne moment. While it is a great affirmation of the ability of the world’s governments to come together and decide to protect extremely valuable marine species, the need to do so is truly alarming and sad.
We only need these CITES trade measures because we are so spectacularly bad at managing our planetary home, driving more and more species to (the brink of) extinction. We need CITES to continue to show its teeth to protect sharks, otherwise we will end up with oceans emptied of them.
Millions of sharks are caught as part of global tuna fishery operations every year. Their bodies are thrown overboard, but only after the fins are hacked off to end up in shark-fin soup. As a result, it is almost too late for some shark species, such as the oceanic white tips, that have experienced dramatic stock declines.
CITES trade controls will help monitor and limit the number of species traded, as permits are only granted if the trade of the species can be proven not to compromise the future survival of the species in the wild.
These extra measures will significantly improve current scientific assessments on these species, which are currently weak or in some cases non-existent. However, as long as fisheries management and enforcement in tuna fisheries remain weak, massive loopholes will remain.
Following the positive steps taken at CITES today, it is now time for governments to improve ocean governance overall and to urgently ban shark finning.
Transshipments at sea for tuna vessels – which in practice catch the majority of sharks – also need to be banned. These transfers from one ship to another enable shark fins to be “laundered” as domestic trade, therefore escaping the scrutiny of CITES’ controls.
Greenpeace is campaigning for tuna brands, restaurants and retailers to not buy from vessels that engage in this practice.
CITES took a step forward today. That gives us hope and new energy for the next battles that we must also win if sharks, our oceans and our planet are to have a sustainable future.
Current New Zealand law allows sharks to be killed, finned and then dumped at sea. New Zealand’s proactive stance at CITES hopefully means the Government is starting to see why we have to protect sharks from extinction. Within the next couple of months the Government will review the National Plan of Action for Sharks and along with the New Zealand Shark Alliance we will be urging it to include a ban on shark finning in New Zealand.
Nathalie Rey, Senior Political Advisor at Greenpeace International, contributed significantly to this post.