Government representatives signed the shark protection agreement in Manila at a meeting of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, CMS, a treaty administered by the UN Environment Programme.
World record mako shark caught off Nova Scotia, Canada during the Yarmouth Shark Scramble, August 2004. (Photo by novascotian61)
They agreed to include seven shark species in the agreement - the great white, basking, whale, porbeagle, spiny dogfish, shortfin and longfin mako sharks.
The sharks are to benefit from better international protection by fishing nations by reduction of illegal fishing and trade through the enforcement of existing laws.
"This first global CMS instrument on commercially exploited species is a decisive step forward in international shark conservation," said UNEP/CMS Executive Secretary Elizabeth Mrema.
"Wildlife conventions, UN agencies and international fisheries need to work together to prevent these creatures that roam the world's oceans from becoming extinct," she said.
CMS Executive Secretary Elizabeth Mrema watches U.S. delegate David Hogan, who chaired the meeting, as he signs the agreement. February 12, 2010. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
According to the 2010 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 17 percent of world's 1,044 shark species are threatened with extinction. At present, human knowledge of about 47 percent of shark species is too limited to even assess if they are threatened.
UNEP cites studies showing that shark populations collapsed in both in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Mediterranean Sea by 90 percent, and by 75 percent in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean within the past 15 years.
The human appetite for shark fin soup and shark meat has led to the collapse of shark populations.
By signing the agreement, the delegates recognized that sharks are at risk of over-fishing, fisheries by-catch, illegal trade, habitat destruction, depletion of prey species, pollution with a high risk of mercury poisoning, boat strikes and the impact of climate change on the marine environment.
Delegates discussed a conservation and management plan that would serve as a first step towards international cooperation on shark protection.
Sharks are particularly vulnerable because they grow slowly and live as long as 100 years. Their relatively low reproductive rates and low natural mortality give sharks little chance to recover if over-fished.
In addition, whale shark meat has been increasingly considered as a high-grade, exotic product since the late 1980s. Prices have risen to $7,000 for 2,000 kilograms in Taiwan, according to the WWF/IUCN wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.
The UN Food and Agricultural Organization says up to 900,000 tons of sharks have been caught every year for the last two decades, and calculating for illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing and missing data, the actual catch figure is estimated to be at least twice as high.
Nevertheless, Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett says his government will not adhere to the protection of the porbeagle, longfin mako and shortfin mako species under the CMS treaty, but instead would pass a law to remove these sharks from the country's list of protected species.
While endangered grey nurse sharks are protected in Australia, this one was hooked and released. Forster, NSW (Photo © 2008 Richard Ling)
Garrett said there is a "lack of evidence suggesting that Australian populations of these shark species face the same threats as other parts of the world."
"The government will ensure that recreational fishers, including charter boat operations, are not unfairly impacted by this international decision, which was driven primarily by concern about northern hemisphere populations of these sharks," Garrett said.
Garrett acknowledged that it is a requirement of Australia's national environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, that species listed internationally under the Convention on Migratory Species are automatically included on Australia's national list of migratory species to be protected.
But he said, the law was passed by the previous administration under Prime Minister John Howard, and a recently completed review of the legislation by the current Rudd Government identified "the inflexibility" of the EPBC Act when it comes to the listing of species under the international convention as "an issue needing correction."
Until a new law is passed, Garrett said, catch and release fishing of these species is unlikely to be subject to enforcement action.
Shark conservationists are worried about Australia's new shark policy.
"Australia is a longstanding signatory of the Convention for Conservation of Migratory Species and has committed to protect listed species with Australian legislation - applying the EPBC act to those species as they migrate through our waters," said Glenn Sant, who serves as Global Marine Programme leader of TRAFFIC and a vice-chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group.
"We are deeply concerned that the Australian Government has decided not to offer these species any increased protection despite the fact that they have been internationally listed under the CMS and recognized as globally Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List."
Sant says changing the EPBC Act could potentially remove protection from other migratory species that pass through Australian waters. "The Government must explain clearly to Australians what the implications of any such change would be," he said. "This is no trivial matter."
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