WASHINGTON — An international wildlife trade group on Tuesday turned down a proposal to protect several species of sharks that are hunted for their fins for a Chinese banquet soup.
Votes to protect three species of hammerhead sharks — scalloped, great and smooth — and the oceanic whitetip shark fell just several votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass at a meeting in Doha, Qatar, of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
The convention voted in favor of protecting another shark species — the porbeagle, caught mainly for its meat, which is eaten in Europe — but it voted against trade restrictions for another shark that's caught for its meat, the spiny dogfish.
The votes were "a major loss for marine conservation," Assistant Interior Secretary Tom Strickland, the head of the U.S. delegation to the meeting, said in a statement. "Sharks play a critical role in the marine environment. As a result of these decisions these species will continue to be overexploited in international trade. We are encouraged, however, by the strong majority vote in favor, and we will continue our efforts to protect these shark species."
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As a top predator, sharks play an important role in the food chain, affecting marine life down to the health of coral reefs. Studies show that shark populations in parts of the ocean have declined by 80 to 99 percent. Sharks take many years to reach adulthood and produce only a few young per year. "They're being harvested at a much faster rate than they can reproduce," Elizabeth Griffin, a shark specialist at the conservation group Oceana, said in a phone interview from Doha.
Shark "finning" — cutting off a shark's fin and dumping its body into the ocean — occurs around the world, Griffin said. The sharks then die from bleeding or suffocation.
Demand for traditional shark-fin soup has been rising with the growing wealth of the Chinese middle class. The soup often is served at government and business functions and at wedding banquets.
Japan lobbied heavily against trade regulations for sharks. It isn't a big market for shark fins or meat, but it was worried about any commercial regulations that eventually could lead to acceptance of regulation of Atlantic bluefin tuna, Griffin said.
The convention last week turned down protections for the dwindling tuna species. Also defeated in recent days were proposals to ban the hunting of polar bears and to regulate international trade in red and pink corals.
Because the vote on the shark proposals was so close to the two-thirds majority needed for passage — the hammerhead decision was 75 in support, 45 against and 14 abstentions, and the ocean whitetip vote was 75 for, 51 against, 16 abstaining — there's a chance that the matter could be voted on a second time in the plenary session during the meeting's final days Wednesday and Thursday, Griffin said.
She said Oceana was trying to convince several nations to vote in favor of protections and to make sure that the porbeagle shark-trade controls hold up if they're voted on again as well.
"Sharks may be fearsome creatures in the ocean, but they hold no match for uncontrolled, short-term economic interests that continue to devastate their populations around the world," Sybille Klenzendorf, the World Wildlife Fund's director of species conservation, said in a statement Tuesday. "This fight will continue. The vitality of our oceans, upon which millions of people depend, relies on healthy populations of species such as sharks and corals."
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