After years of government wrangling, five types of sharks have gained protected status under an international treaty. Although shark advocates welcome the decision, enforcement of the protections could be tricky.
Steven Spielberg's Hollywood film "Jaws" painted the great white shark as a vicious monster, which in that movie attacked and killed four people in just a few days. But statistically, only around five people per year die as a result of a shark attacks. In most of those cases, the massive fish have confused people for its prey, like seals, while hunting.
And because it is threatened in many regions, the great white shark in 2004 gained protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), even though it is not commercially fished.
The conservation situation was not much better for the porbeagle, oceanic whitetip and three types of hammerhead. Overall, many shark species have declined by up to 90 percent. Nor has the manta ray been doing too well.
On Sunday (14.09.2014), these five sharks species and all manta rays were entered onto the CITES Appendix II list, which is meant to limit their international trade.
Heike Finke, a species protection expert at German conservation organization NABU, called the animals' decline "frightening." The sharks' troublesome conservation status may be traced back to intensive fishing, she said. But it also has to do with the sharks' lifecycle, she explained: "It sometimes takes up to 22 years for them to reach sexual maturity," Finke said.
More endangered than tigers and snow leopards
If a marine species takes 20 years to reproduce, there is a high probability it will end up in a fishing net before it has the chance to produce young. This is one of the main reasons why the shark is declining.
While endangered species as tigers and snow leopards can be captive bred - including in zoos - sharks don't present that possibility, Finke thinks.
Sharks are not suitable for being held in aquariums, she explained. "If they disappear, then the species will be gone forever."
In Germany and Europe, shark meat is made into steaks, Schillerlocke (a strip of smoked dogfish), or fish and chips. In China and Japan, a special delicacy is shark-fin soup.
This appetite for shark-fin soup has also been driving the species toward extinction. It's led to the especially wasteful practice of many fishermen cutting in particular the dorsal or top fins off the animals, and then throwing the rest of the body back overboard. Shark fins are compact and relatively easy to transport with minimal refrigeration, yet the meat must be kept cool.
Heike Finke called the practice outrageous. "It's perfectly good meat," she said of the rest of the animal. Sharks remain alive once the fins have been removed, she explained, but then they "suffocate slowly and horrifically over the course of several days."
Cartilage from the fin is used in China for medicinal purposes, as the folk belief is that it's effective against diseases such as cancer and Parkinson's.
Meanwhile, sharks' teeth and the gill rakers from manta rays are used in jewelry or sold as souvenirs.
Still little known about sharks
Despite their intimidating reputation, there's a lack of real scientific research about sharks. "It is difficult for us to observe the animals underwater," said Finke. She continued to explain how great white sharks have more recently been fitted with transmitters to gain insights into their habitat and mating behavior.
With hammerhead sharks, for example, it is known that pregnant females travel in groups. For several pregnant hammerheads to land in a fishing net then amounts to a blow for the species.
More knowledge about the animals will be essential in establishing no-fishing zones for sharks, for instance during the periods when they bear their live young. With the species' inscription onto the CITES list of protected species, it's possible to better control fishing.
Enforcement challenge for new protective status
The restrictions on commercial exploitation of the five species that came into force on Sunday follows European Union guidelines. The EU banned commercial capture of the dogfish and porbeagle in 2010.
If the protected sharks are fished and traded internationally, then the exporter theoretically has to show evidence that the fish came from an area where there was sufficient population.
Joachim Flasbarth, secretary of state of the German environmental ministry of, has campaigned vigorously for shark conservation. Flasbarth welcomed the decision to add the species to the CITES protection list, and told the German press agency dpa that the treaty has finally created an international venue for punishing violators.
Implementing shark protections could, however, be tricky. Although all countries that are party to CITES are obliged to enforce the protection through national law, most shark exploitation occurs in international waters on the high seas by industrial ships of often nebulous national origin. Shark finning also takes place in countries that haven't signed the treaty.
According to NABU, in the year 2000 more than 800,000 tons of sharks and manta rays were officially registered as being caught - this represents some 100 million sharks.
"How high the number of unreported cases is, one can only guess," Finke concluded.