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Saving sharks and tuna

By Susan Lieberman

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that more than 70 percent of the world’s fish stocks are either fully exploited or depleted. The ramifications of this statistic, however, stretch beyond the individual species threatened with extinction. The emptying of the oceans by industrial fishing fleets places the basic food and economic security of poor coastal communities across the world at risk.

Efforts to stem overfishing and keep our oceans healthy will take center stage in Doha, Qatar, when delegations from the 175 member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meet March 13-25. (175 governments weigh stricter controls over wildlife trade)

The spotlight at CITES this year will focus on some of the most iconic fish in the sea.

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NGS stock photo of whitetip sharks by Robert Sisson

The species being discussed at this CITES meeting include:

  • Atlantic bluefin tuna, the gold standard of high-end sushi, whose populations have declined more than 80 percent since 1970. These fish are too valuable for their own good; a 511-pound bluefin tuna sold this past January at Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market for U.S. $175,000. Monaco sponsored a proposal to include Atlantic bluefin tuna in CITES Appendix I, which would prohibit international commercial trade in the species. (Blog: Nations wrestle over ban on tuna trade)
  • Scalloped hammerhead sharks, which have declined by as much as 98 percent in some regions. Up to 73 million sharks are killed every year for the fin trade; hammerhead fins are prized for shark fin soup as they break apart into noodle-like pieces when placed in hot water. The United States and Palau sponsored a proposal to list this shark (along with two other hammerheads, dusky and sandbar sharks) in CITES Appendix II, which would require export permits for all international trade and a determination that trade is legal and not detrimental to the species’ survival.
  • Oceanic whitetip sharks, whose large fins have been valued at $45-$85 per kilogram. Populations of oceanic whitetips are estimated to have declined by as much as 90 percent in the Central Pacific Ocean and 99 percent in the Gulf of Mexico. The United States and Palau sponsored an Appendix II proposal for this vulnerable shark.
  • Porbeagle sharks, cousins of the great white shark, and spiny dogfish sharks, which are known to live for more than 80 years. Both sharks have been staples of European seafood markets–porbeagle is among the most prized of all shark meat and spiny dogfish has replaced the overfished Atlantic cod as the “fish” in “fish and chips.” The European Union and Palau sponsored proposals to list these sharks in Appendix II.

It is not too late to save these fish and our oceans. Sharks and bluefin cannot replace themselves as fast as industrial fishing fleets are taking them out of the sea. Addressing international trade is the first step in tackling the problem.

  • Susan Lieberman is director, international policy, of the Pew Environment Group. She has attended every CITES meeting since 1989.