I never envisioned myself becoming a spokesperson for sharks and I can remember the exact moment I fell back into it.

I was on a dive boat in the Fakarava South Pass, deep in French Polynesia, in a remote atoll in the Tuamotu Islands. French Polynesia is well known as the habitat for roughly 700 sharks. They are well fed and not interested in eating humans. 

On this dive boat, I was against the current in a line-up of dozens of sharks. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and feeling. They were all around us, eye to eye on the left and right, all within touching distance. I felt as if I had been welcomed into a group shark meditation. I had never felt so calm and serene – seriously. I was now privy to the fact that the majority of people have a grand misunderstanding around these great specimens of the sea.

Sharks are essential top predators and help to serve as an indicator of a healthy marine ecosystem. Having few or no natural predators themselves, sharks have an important ecological role in keeping prey species in the lower levels of the food web in balance, through predation and fear of predation. Hunting and removing the weak or sick individuals lower down in the food web maintains ecosystem health.

Dr. Mark Bond, distinguished marine fellow at Florida International University, is one of the nation’s top voices on the importance of sharks to a marine ecosystem. He likens sharks to security guards at an event. In this analogy, the sharks make sure that healthy fish are on the reef and through predation, keep their numbers in check. 

Ocean Unite, Sharks, CITES

“As humans harvest fish from an ecosystem, we remove the largest individuals first, which are typically sharks. A complete lack of sharks or only the presence of small or juvenile sharks is an indication that an ecosystem is being overexploited,” Bond says. “Regardless of the ecosystem, removing sharks impacts community structure and threatens the stability and productivity of the system from a biodiversity and fisheries standpoint.” 

Bond’s research has found that the impacts of exploitation are unpredictable and can manifest as indirect impacts on different species in a marine system. For example, “the removal of sharks can alter the structure of a seagrass community disrupting the balance, which in turn, negatively effects on lobster and conch fisheries that depend on healthy seagrass ecosystems.”

As the first vertebrate predators, sharks and their relatives have been evolving and roaming this planet for hundreds of millions of years. Today, the shark fin trade, irresponsible fishing practices and marine pollution continue to take its toll on this ancient species. Many species of sharks are being classified on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Red List assessment as ‘Critically Endangered’. With recent average numbers pointing to 100 million sharks being lost every year, what will this mean for the overall health of our ocean? 

Ocean Unite, Sharks, CITES

Estimates state that around 100 shark species out of the more than 500 existing species are in an “imminent danger to severe” state. According to IUCN analysts, 2.4 per cent are ‘Critically Endangered’, 3.2 per cent are ‘Endangered', 10.3 per cent are ‘Vulnerable’, and 14.4 per cent are ‘Near Threatened’. Some species have seen a 90 per cent decline in numbers since the inception of large-scale fishing.

On August 17th-28th, representatives from 170 nations around the world will gather together in Geneva, Switzerland for the next CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Conference, with a goal to ensure that international commercial trade in specimens of wild animals and plants do not threaten their survival. CITES is an essential foundation to international conservation efforts, and acts as a global treaty, currently regulating more than 35,000 endangered plant and animal species (5,800 species of animals and 30,000 species of plants). 

Species are grouped or listed relative to the level of threat they face from international wildlife trade through three appendices:

  • Appendix I lists species threatened with extinction. They cannot be traded commercially
  • Appendix II lists species that may be threatened with extinction, that require necessary trade controls to make sure that their survival is not threatened
  • Appendix III lists species included at the request of a Party that already regulates trade in the species which it thinks needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation
Ocean Unite, Sharks, CITES

The major driver of shark declines globally is the international trade in shark fins, and previous to 2010, little attention or effective management was paid to the markets developing around shark products. Since 2013, CITES has become a pivotal force in global shark conservation and management with 23 species now listed on its Appendix II. Listings for five species of sharks and all manta rays meant that countries have to prove that any catch of these species was sustainable before engaging in trade. This movement was mainly due to a critical mass of committed governments, NGOs, scientists and individuals holding up the increasing body of evidence that sharks were disappearing all over the world, and that the large-scale international trade in a luxury product was mostly to blame.

But time is running out. In less than six decades, an animal that has been around for 400 million years, skirting four global mass extinctions along the way, is facing monumental population decimation. This calls for some fast action. 

The major driver of shark declines globally is the international trade in shark fins, and previous to 2010, little attention or effective management was paid to the markets developing around shark products.

Today, six years later, nearly 20 per cent of the global fin trade is regulated under CITES Appendix II, and these legally binding listings have driven shark and ray conservation progress in countless countries globally and are helping secure a future for sharks and rays all around the world. In 2016, all thresher shark species, silky sharks, and nine species of mobula rays were added to Appendix II. The results of these listings show effective implementation, in that dozens of governments around the world have put domestic measures in place. More than 70 countries have also hosted or attended training workshops for fisheries, customs, and environment officials on how best to create full protections or sustainable export limits, as well as implement customs checks needed to prevent illegal trade. All of this marks progress, but it is not enough. 

Ocean Unite, Sharks, CITES

As we approach this year’s CITES conference, 67 governments are co-sponsoring one or more listing proposals including listing shortfin and longfin mako sharks, 10 species of white-spotted wedgefish, and 6 species of giant guitarfish, commonly known as ‘rhino rays’. Luke Warwick is associate director for the Sharks and Rays Program for Wildlife Conservation Society and directing a global project to establish additional CITES shark listings: “At the upcoming CITES CoP18, additional listings will be considered for a record breaking 18 shark and ray species. This includes the fastest shark in the ocean, the shortfin mako being pushed towards extinction, and now assessed as globally endangered due to unsustainable longline fisheries,” Warwick notes.

“Additionally, all wedgefish and giant guitarfish are being considered for CITES protections. These strange flattened relatives of true sharks have fins that command the highest value of all in the unsustainable global fin trade, where they are known as ‘the king of shark fins’. New research indicates that the majority of these unique species are Critically Endangered.” As Warwick states, “these potential trade restrictions, and the follow-up actions that they stimulate through fisheries management action or stronger protections, might be the only lifeline they have if they are to be saved from extinction”. For the sharks and rays of the world there’s a long way to go back to safety, and efforts like CITES listings are essential to beat the ticking clocks of extinction.

Ocean Unite, Sharks, CITES

- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Kristin Hettermann is an ocean conservationist and underwater photographer who uses the camera and storytelling as tools to tap into emotions and elicit deeper feelings about her favorite part of planet earth, the ocean. Her artivism platform, OCEANSCAPES, is modeled to combine science and activism with art and design, and her favorite moments are in the field with scientists and naturalists exploring natural environments and capturing images that accompany their stories. Her mission is to inspire you to feel the ocean.

This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.