CITES and Sharks – The Sordid History

I wanted to post this earlier while it was still a bit more timely, but then real life got in the way.

The big news last week was the complete smackdown of conservation efforts for marine species at CITES (even the porbeagle, initially thought to be the one success story, got hosed).  The marine blogosphere (including this blog) cried foul; Southern Fried Science gave us the list of failures, and Guilty Planet lamented the inability of policymakers to think of fish as wildlife

It was about this time that I went back to a book I had read a few months ago, Biology and Management of Dogfish Sharks (a great source of info if you like your sharks small and numerous).  Sonja Fordham from the Ocean Conservancy contributed an excellent chapter on the history of dogfish and shark management in both the US and internationally by CITES, and it should be essential reading for anyone interested in the political side of conservation.

As a primer for anyone who may be unfamiliar with the CITES process, a species can be listed under one of three Appendices, each corresponding to a certain level of international protection.  Appendix I is the money shot; it’s a complete ban on international trade.  Appendix II is where strict control is placed on international trade, and this where just about everything that was up for listing this year would have ended up.  Appendix III is the listing for species that are managed within a specific country’s jurisdiction but would require one or more other nations’ cooperation.  An example of this would be if dogfish were protected off the U.S.; it would require cooperation from Canada due to the fact that the U.S. stocks migrate in and out of Canadian waters.

As mentioned in my previous post about CITES, strict control of international trade on dogfish would effectively kill the fishery.  Virtually no one in the U.S. gets excited about eating spiny dogfish, but they’ve been used for fish and chips in Europe for decades (mainly due to the collapse of cod in European waters).  For this reason dogfish populations are critically low in Europe and thus there is a decent export demand for dogfish landed in the States.  For fishermen this is a win-win; reduce the population of a pest species while being able to profit from a species that historically existed only as (sometimes massive amounts of) bycatch.

From a scientific and management perspective, dogfish are a time bomb.  Long-lived, slow-growing, and with a two-year gestation period, spiny dogfish are theoretically the worst possible species for a targeted fishery.  Paradoxically, they can be almost ridiculously abundant in certain areas.  Because of this the disconnect between fisheries and managers tends to be more pronounced in the case of dogfish than just about any other species.  Managers see population trends that make very conservative management seem like a good idea while fishermen are pulling up 10,000 pounds of a supposedly-endangered species in one tow.

This little bit of background serves to illuminate two important factors brought up by Fordham (2009), and my main point. 

The first of Fordham’s points is that despite our occasionally god-awful reputation internationally when it comes to conserving natural resources, the U.S. has been a leader in shark conservation.  One of the earliers CITES elasmobranch proposals was back in 1997 when the U.S. attempted to list all sawfish species.  Three years later they would team up with the U.K. to propose basking sharks for listing, and in 2002 basking and whale sharks would become the first shark species listed by CITES (on Appendix I, no less).  The U.S. would again be integral in listing the great white on Appendix II in 2004. 

In the case of dogfish, the U.S. has supported the listing of the species much to the chagrin of fishing interests and protest from entire states.  Nearly every attempt to list dogfish under Appendix II has been met by formal protest from the Division of Marine Fisheries in Massachussets, and at least once from the state of Washington.  These have been tough decisions on both sides: the states are trying to support their fishermen (both states are epicenters of the dogfish fishery on their respective coasts) for exactly the reasons brought up earlier, while the U.S. delegation is forced to go against a vocal portion of their own constituents in the interest of conservation.

The second of Fordham’s points is that while the U.S. has been supportive of dogfish conservation internationally, it has been the European Union (with Germany at the forefront) that has actually been putting out these dogfish proposals.  Again, we can look to history for the reason.  The European spiny dogfish stocks have been overexploited for a long time, and their depletion demonstrates exactly what happens without smart management of the species.  So what we see at CITES is an alliance of sorts between a region that has already seen what bad can come from dogfish overexploitation and a country that is in the initial, highly contentious stages of dogfish management.  The U.S. supported the proposal, but the attempted listing of spiny dogfish (and porbeagles) has been a product of Germany every time.

My main point?  In the conservation and science world, it is always important to know your history.  Multiple sources will tell you that the big defeats at CITES were the product of a “concentrated effort” by Japan, China, and others to prevent anything marine from being listed.  That’s the big picture, but as we can see from the dogfish debate there are all kinds of little side-plots if you know where to look.  Japan and China couldn’t have accomplished this on their own; what other countries contributed and what interest may they have had? 

Don’t get me wrong, I am pro-conservation, and the failure to list the large sharks is shameful and driven largely by greed.  These aren’t being exploited as a food source for the working class; shark-fin soup is a luxury item and utterly frivolous as a food ingredient.  However, it’s important to remember that conservation is about winning hearts and minds, and to do that you need to know why people exploit a species and what it may mean to them if they can’t anymore.

Sonja Fordham does a much better (and far more thorough) job of explaining the sordid history of international shark management.  As said before, this should be required reading for anyone interested in shark management, conservation, and even the CITES process.


Fordham, S.V.  2009.  Conservation of Atlantic spiny dogfish under U.S. law and CITES.  In Gallucci, V.F., McFarlane, G.A., Bargmann, G.G. (editors) Biology and Management of Dogfish Sharks.  pp. 411-423.