The small, picture perfect island of Malapascua in the Philippines had seemed a lost cause to its inhabitants just a few years ago. Unsustainable and damaging fishing methods, including the use of dynamite and trawling, had ruined the ecosystem. Previously a fishing village, now there was nothing. To add insult to injury, November 2013 brought Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, which destroyed large amounts of infrastructure on the island. This, teemed with the loss of fish in the oceans, cost the locals their livelihoods.
The island had just one saving grace which it could turn to in hopes of saving its inhabitants’ lives, and rebuilding the island: sharks.
Sail just a few kilometres east from the island and you will reach Monad Shoal, a natural cleaning station for fish and the only place in the world where thresher sharks can be seen regularly. These long-tailed creatures come to clean their gills, skin and mouths using the seamount.
Anna Oposa, of Save Philippines Seas, and a small team were able to turn things around for the island by protecting its sharks. ‘I received an award to establish shark and marine sanctuary and moved to Malapascua in 2012,’ she says. ‘We started by training people on marine science and engaging youth about marine ecology, teaching them that it’s not just the dive community that can benefit from saving the sharks.’
The economics are simple: the more sharks the island has, the more money it makes from avid tourists keen to see them in the oceans. Dennis Bryan Bait-it, a dive instructor in Malapascua, now gets a sustainable income from thresher shark tourism. ‘Everyone on the island is somehow related to thresher shark tourism,’ he emphasises. ‘There are dive shark managers who started off as fishermen. People are happy because their children can go to school.’
Yet this positive tourism could be lost in a heartbeat. Thresher shark populations have declined more than 70 per cent worldwide, largely due to unsustainable fishing methods and a huge demand for their fins in Asian cuisine.
“Sharks are facing a global mortality crisis, with 100 million killed every year. For many species, it’s impossible for them to recover from continuously declining populations”
In 2014, Oposa and Bryan Bait-it made a group called Friends of Sharks – turning local fishermen into fish wardens, who are empowered to protect the oceans and ensure no illegal fishing of thresher sharks is taking place. The wardens don’t just patrol, they also carry out information campaigns, speaking to neighbours and explaining the benefits of protecting the shoal and marine parks.
However, more needs to be done if they are to truly protect this species and keep their positive tourism efforts going. Therefore, Oposa and Bryan Bait-it chose to attend CITES CoP17 to lobby for thresher sharks to be moved to Appendix II, offering them more protection.
‘A listing on CITES Appendix II ensures that all thresher fins that are traded internationally are from sustainably managed fisheries that do not harm the status of these species populations in the wild,’ explains Luke Warwick, director of the global shark conservation campaign at The Pew Charitable Trusts. ‘Additionally, any catch of these species [has] to be accurately recorded. Management of shark species is almost non-existent – so these listings [will] have a huge impact on recorded data.’
It’s not just thresher sharks that need further protection, according to Warwick. ‘Sharks are facing a global mortality crisis, with 100 million killed every year,’ he says. ‘For many species, it’s impossible for them to recover from continuously declining populations. For instance, silky and thresher sharks can take over ten years to mature and produce pups, with threshers only having one or two pups every other year. Add to that the unsustainable declines these species are facing – at least 70 per cent everywhere they are found, and sometimes as high as 90 per cent as with the silky sharks in the Indian Ocean – and these sharks are headed towards extinction.’
For Oposa and Bryan Bait-it, the impact of the CITES listing is personal. ‘Thresher sharks are fundamental to Malapascua tourism,’ they said, before the vote. ‘If they get on Appendix II it automatically protects them nationally. That’s why we’re trying to do this.’
The discussion on whether to list devil rays, thresher sharks and silky sharks was a highly anticipated event. In previous years, CITES members had already voted to list five commercially valuable sharks – including the great hammerhead and the oceanic white tip – and all manta rays, and it is widely agreed by conservationists that the listing is helping these species to survive, especially given the intense demand for their fins in Asia.
The Maldives was one of the first countries to advocate for the listing of silky sharks on Appendix II. ‘Here in Africa the conservation and proper management of the big five species are crucial... in the Maldives, silky sharks are among our big five. Without them we would lose millions of dollars in tourism revenue.’
Sri Lanka and Ethiopia were also among the countries to speak out in favour of the listing, with Sri Lanka talking of the ‘strong declines [of sharks] in our waters... driven by demand for their fins.’ The Ethiopian delegate stated, ‘My kid gave me a message to vote for sharks. Ethiopia supports the range states who are calling on all parties to assist them in preserving their natural resources.’
A number of parties also argued against the listing of these species, including Qatar, Japan and Iceland. The Qatar delegate argued, ‘many people on the coast are depending [on sharks] for protein. Inclusion in Appendix II may affect them.’
“Sharks and rays around the world are being overfished for a thriving global market, yet only a tiny fraction of these species are regulated in international trade”
Japan questioned whether CITES protection could really help the species. ‘CITES should evaluate the effect of the previous Appendix II listings – the listing of silky shark will not [achieve conservation],’ said its delegate, arguing that other sharks are listed on Appendix II and yet they are still unsustainably harvested from the seas.
Iceland voiced concerns that an Appendix II listing might result in the opposite to the intended effect, and rather than protect these species, could put them in more danger. ‘A listing is more likely to result in lack of reporting or even discarding... Stocks would suffer. [Instead of the Appendix II listing] countries should be encouraged to take suitable measures to manage the sharks.’
Nevertheless, over two thirds of the members voted for all species to be listed, and the proposals passed in the Johannesburg conference.
In response to the decision, Amie Brautigam, Sharks and Rays Coordinator at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) said, ‘Today, CITES took its next concrete steps – begun in 1994 – to conserve sharks and rays, among the most threatened animals on the planet. The global trade in shark and ray parts and products is nearing $1billion in value per year and is provisioned by shark and ray fisheries that are landing more than 800,000 metric tons of these animals per year. Sharks and rays around the world are being overfished for a thriving global market, yet only a tiny fraction of these species are regulated in international trade. We hope governments follow through with today’s decisions to extend CITES regulation to devil rays, thresher sharks, and the silky shark.’
The decision will be finalised during plenary discussions at CITES over the next two days.