Costa Rica to Swim with the Hammerheads
Costa Rica’s Environmental Ministry (Minaet) held a press conference on Thursday March 4, 2010, announcing its support to include a hammerhead shark proposal in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Delegates from Costa Rica will then participate in the Conference of the CITES Parties (CoP15) on March 13-25 in Doha, Qatar where the 175 member countries will consider (and where appropriate adopt) proposals to amend the lists of species protected by the Convention. Acceptance of the shark proposal into CITES would pressure member nations to regulate the international trade and over-exploitation of the Scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini), along with two look-alike species, the Great hammerhead (S. mokarran) and Smooth hammerhead (S. zygaena).
Minaet’s support for the proposal was influenced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Ad Hoc Expert Panel’s conclusion that sufficient scientific evidence exists to support the inclusion of the Scalloped hammerhead and look-alike species into CITES because hammerheads reproduce slowly and will have difficulty rebounding from recent overfishing. The Costa Rican government was also pressured to support the proposal by local and international conservation non-profits, like the Sea Turtle Restoration Program (Pretoma), whose members campaigned quickly to obtain 2000 Costa Rican signatures to match the country’s 2000 colon monetary note that features the iconic hammerhead.
When evaluated on a population by population basis, two historically large Scalloped hammerhead populations meet the Convention’s Appendix II decline criterion for a low productivity species. The first of these populations, located in the northwest Atlantic Ocean, has experienced an 83% decline between 1981 and 2005. In addition, in the southwest Atlantic Ocean hammerhead shark populations have been targeted by several fisheries and have subsequently suffered a 90% collapse.
However, while it’s widely known that shark populations are diminishing, this evidence alone isn’t enough to include them in one of the three CITES Appendices. Inclusion into the Convention is determined according to the degree of protection a species needs against unregulated international trade, in this case the need for a hammerhead’s protection from the international trade of its fins to the Asian shark fin soup market.
A set of biological and trade criteria are used to help determine whether a species should be included in Appendices I or II. At each regular meeting of the CoP, Parties (member countries) submit proposals based on those criteria to amend the Appendices. Those amendment proposals are discussed and then submitted to a vote by the Convention’s 175 member countries among which Costa Rica and China, a major consumer of shark fin soup, both pertain. This year the United States and Palau drafted the hammerhead proposal, the very one Costa Rica now supports.
CITES is an international agreement to which countries adhere voluntarily. Although CITES is legally binding on the Parties – in other words they have to implement the Convention – it does not take the place of national laws. Nevertheless, it does provide a framework to be respected by each Party. The individual member countries must then adopt their own domestic legislation to ensure that CITES is implemented at the national level.
CITES’ different appendices offer varying degrees of international trade protection to included species. Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction. Trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances.
Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival. Inclusion of the Scalloped hammerhead shark and its two look-alike species has been proposed for this appendix.
Appendix III contains species that are protected in at least one country, which has asked other CITES Parties for assistance in controlling the trade.
Environmentalists hope that the inclusion of these shark species will pressure Costa Rica to take a more proactive role in national shark conservation initiatives. While the country has stood out on the world stage, it’s government still lacks the will to close its own illegally operating private docks where thousands of tons of shark fins are landed each year and then traded internationally.