Sharks: From Hunters to Hunted, and Overfished

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This week, environmental groups hailed as a major victory news that the United States has come out in support of protecting endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). "The Obama administration's decision to support a CITES Appendix I listing of Atlantic bluefin tuna could be a real game changer for the species," said Susan Lieberman, director of international policy at the Pew Environmental Group.

A CITES Appendix I listing would ban international trade in bluefins, most of which are now imported by Japan. The final decision will be announced when representatives of the Convention's 175 signatory countries meet in Doha, Qatar, between March 13 and 25.

But the same environmentalists are hoping the upcoming CITES meeting will address concerns about eight shark species that haven't received the media attention lavished on the high-profile bluefin—but which, in some cases, hover even closer to extinction. Of particular concern are three species of hammerhead sharks and oceanic whitetip sharks, whose fins are the prime ingredient in shark fin soup, an increasingly popular dish in upwardly mobile Asian countries. Some 73 million sharks are killed each year just for their fins.

Currently, shark fishing is virtually unregulated in international waters, although the United States and other countries have put controls in place in their territorial waters. "In international trade it's anything goes—a free-for-all," Lieberman said. "It's the Wild West out there. The attitude is, 'Help yourselves.' Unfortunately there are not enough sharks out there for everyone to help themselves."

Spiny dogfish are another shark species of concern. Having eaten their way through codfish populations, the British (primarily) have turned to dogfish as the main ingredient in their iconic fish and chips. And there are worries that demand for its meat will take the dogfish down the same road as the badly depleted cod.

"This is the first time CITES is looking at a highly commercial and valuable group of shark species," Lieberman said. "In some ecosystems the trade in sharks is reducing their numbers to the point where they are almost gone, if not gone."

As the top predator, sharks play a crucial role in the ecosystems they inhabit. If you remove sharks, according to Lieberman, populations of smaller predatory fish can explode, setting off a cascading effect as they prey on other fish. "We're seeing some coastal places where the whole ecosystem crashes."

The petitioners are hoping the threatened shark species will be listed under Appendix II of the convention, a less limiting measure than the Appendix I listing being sought for Atlantic bluefins. "Appendix II is what I call the sustainable-use appendix. It says that it's fine to use a species commercially, as long as it's sustainable and legal," Lieberman said.

This hardly seems like an extreme step. In fact, it could be argued that all animals we consume should be taken in a sustainable and legal manner, regardless of their population status.

Now, international attention has shifted to China, with its major market for shark products. It has not declared where it stands on a CITES ruling, but Lieberman is optimistic.

Whatever the decision, it's time these magnificent predators that have been around for 400 million years get the fisheries management respect they deserve.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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