A proposal to regulate trade in the scalloped hammerhead shark and four similar species was defeated at the summit of the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species(Cites).
The measure was only narrowly rejected, failing by five votes to take the necessary two-thirds majority at the meeting after Asian nations argued that regulating the shark finning trade could hurt poor nations.
The tiny Pacific nation of Palau, which last year created the first ever shark sanctuary, joined the United States in introducing the proposal. It called on countries to protect the species so they can be fished into the future.
Japan, which successfully campaigned against an export ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna and regulations on the coral trade, led the opposition to the shark proposal. It argued that better enforcement, not trade restrictions was the answer. It also complained it would be difficult to differentiate the hammerheads from other species and would deprive poor fishing nations of much needed income.
They were joined by other countries dependent on the trade, including Singapore and Indonesia which catches the most sharks.
Tom Strickland, the US Assistant Interior Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said regional fisheries bodies had done nothing to regulate the trade in endangered scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead as well as the threatened smooth hammerhead, and their numbers have dropped by as much as 85 per cent.
“The greatest threat to the hammerhead is from harvest for the international fin trade and the fin of the species is among highly valued of the trade,” Strickland said.
Conservationists say hammerheads are targeted for their fins more than any other shark species and are the most threatened. Fishermen, both industrial and small-scale, many operating illegally, slice off the fins and throw the carcasses back in the ocean and there are as many as 2.7 million hammerheads are caught annually.
Shark fin soup has long played a central part in traditional Chinese culture, often being served at weddings and banquets. Demand for the soup has surged as Chinese middle class families become wealthier.
The hammerhead won 75 votes in the secret ballot with 45 against and14 abstentions, leading conservationists to believe they may have a slim chance to reverse the vote later this week.
The oceanic whitetip shark also failed to win the two-thirds majority required for protection on Cites Appendix II. It received 75 votes in favour, 51 against, 16 abstentions (by a secret ballot). It failed to reach a two thirds majority by 9 votes.
The large fins of oceanic whitetip sharks have been valued at $45 -$85 per kilogram. Oceanic whitetip populations have declined by as much as 90 per cent in the central Pacific Ocean and 99 per cent in the Gulf of Mexico.
Appendix II listing for the two shark species would have meant that trade would have been allowed wherever shark populations could stand the fishing pressure.
Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation for the Pew Environment Group, said: “Sharks have been on our planet for more than 400 million years, but if governments do not act, many shark species will not last. Most species reproduce late in life, have few young and simply do not have the capacity to recover from commercial extraction and global trade.
”The shark fin trade which is responsible for the killing of up to 73 million sharks annually remains largely unregulated,” he added.
“Despite scientific data showing that many shark populations are plummeting, international fisheries management bodies and now international conservation forums have favoured commerce over
protection. Individual nations need to answer the call to protect threatened species if sharks are to remain in our oceans.”
Oliver Knowles from Greenpeace International said: “The devastating result sees hammerheads and oceanic whitetip sharks join the Atlantic bluefin, and red and pink corals, as victims of short-term economic interest winning out over efforts to save species from extinction at this Cites meeting.”
The fate of Spiny dogfish and porbeagle sharks is to be decided later .