Victory at CITES! Committee Votes to List the Silky Shark, Thresher Sharks, and Mobula Rays

We did it.  In a collective effort supported by numerous NGOs — and with the backing of several key nations — the committee tasked with considering species proposals voted today to recommend listing of silky sharks, thresher sharks, and mobula rays under CITES Appendix II.  While the committee’s recommendation could be overturned in the full plenary session tomorrow, we believe such an outcome is unlikely given the strong support for the listings.

Sea Shepherd Legal galvanized support in the days preceding this momentous occasion.  By relentlessly engaging delegates from all corners of the globe — and by hosting a packed side event — we did everything in our power to ensure this result.

Today’s developments stand in stark contrast to the position of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which recently found that the bigeye and common thresher do not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  NMFS made a grave mistake in reaching this conclusion.  Along with several other groups, Sea Shepherd Legal has been working to win these sharks the ESA protections that they deserve.

This victory is only the beginning.  Much work remains to be accomplished.  We need to list more sharks and rays.  More importantly, we must push for immediate and effective implementation of these new listings, along with greater enforcement of existing domestic and regional conservation measures.

Today, we celebrate.  Tomorrow, we continue the fight.


Silky shark.  Photo credit: Alex Hofford.


Sea Shepherd Legal Packs the House in Johannesburg, Calling for CITES Protections for Sharks, Rays, and Other Marine Species

In just a few days, the international community will have a rare opportunity to give sharks, rays, and other marine species a measure of the protection they deserve.  Early next week, the parties to CITES will decide whether to list the silky shark, all species of thresher sharks, all species of mobula rays, the bangaii cardinalfish, the clarion angelfish, and the nautilus.  If successful, these listings will create serious legal obstacles to unchecked international trade — trade that is pushing these species to the brink.  It’s not enough, but it’s a significant step in the right direction.


Last night, Sea Shepherd Legal held a panel discussion, calling for parties to do the right thing by supporting the proposals in favor of greater protections for marine species.  Featuring a compelling presentation by a distinguished biologist and stirring endorsements by official delegates from Brazil and the Philippines, the event galvanized support ahead of next week’s critical votes.


The parties are informed.  The world is watching.  Should the CITES community fail to respond, they will have no excuses to offer.  Parties:  Do the right thing.  Vote “yes.”


Giving Teeth to Toothfish Protections: CITES Listing Is a Must

This is the third entry in a series live from CITES CoP 17 in Johannesburg, South Africa

Known as “white gold” among illegal fishermen, Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish can fetch as much as $US 83 million for the catch from a single vessel.  In the face of this lucrative market, toothfish populations have experienced precipitous declines throughout their range.  Some of the only protections against the overharvest of toothfish are provided by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR or Convention).

Here’s the problem:  CCAMLR is legally binding on only a small fraction of the world’s nations.  CCAMLR boasts but 25 Members and 11 Acceding States.  That means that only 36 nations, or approximately 18% of the world’s countries, have agreed to bind themselves to CCAMLR’s conservation measures.

So what?, you might be thinking.  Not every nation targets toothfish.  As long as the fishing nations are bound to the Convention, who cares?  And the really bad guys — pirate ships, like the Thunder — ignore laws entirely.   

The second thought may be right.  Extreme scofflaws are only deterred by stiff enforcement, which is where Sea Shepherd vessels like the Sam Simon and Steve Irwin come into play.  But the first thought — that CCAMLR is good enough as far as the law is concerned — fails to account for the complexities of the problem.


The Sam Simon hauls in miles of illegal gillnet abandoned by the Thunder.

Unfortunately, CCAMLR does not cover all nations whose vessels ply the Southern Ocean for toothfish.  Over the past decade, a number of nations that are not CCAMLR signatories have reportedly flagged vessels identified as engaging in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in Convention waters.  Moreover, CCAMLR’s reach does not extend to the many nations that import toothfish in international trade.  These nations fuel the  burgeoning demand for toothfish in international trade.

Bottom line:  We have a slew of nations not bound by CCAMLR that either (A) flag vessels that harvest toothfish, or (B) import toothfish.

Enter CITES.  Where CCAMLR suffers from limited membership, CITES boasts a nearly universal membership.  Out of 196 nations, 183 are parties to CITES.

If toothfish were listed under CITES Appendix I, commercial trade between CITES parties (the vast majority of the world) would be banned.  If, more realistically, toothfish were listed under CITES Appendix II, commercial trade could still occur, but non-CCAMLR states involved in fishing would face serious procedural hurdles designed to prevent fishing “detrimental” to the survival of the targeted toothfish species.

Recognizing the benefits of a CITES listing, in 2002, Australia tabled a proposal to list toothfish under Appendix II.  Unfortunately, Australia withdrew this proposal in the face of opposition, and the CITES CoP settled for a “solution” proposed by Chile.  This “solution” requested the CITES parties to adopt and implement the CCAMLR catch document scheme.  Nevertheless, despite the apparent good intentions out of which it emerged, the 2002 compromise has been an absolute disaster.

Now, with this background, we turn to its relevance for the current CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP).  Frustrated by the failure of the 2002 compromise, CCAMLR has submitted a formal plea to the CITES Secretariat to encourage CITES parties involved in the harvest and/or trade of toothfish to adhere to their prior commitments.  In its submission, CCAMLR describes the history of blatant noncompliance with those commitments:

2. In November 2002, the CITES Conference of Parties (CoP12) adopted Resolution 12.4 on ‘Cooperation between CITES and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources Regarding Trade in Toothfish’ and Decisions 12.57 to 12.59 regarding the trade in toothfish.

3. Pursuant to Resolution Conf. 12.4 and Decisions 12.57 and 12.59, Parties to CITES involved in the harvest and/or trade of toothfish are requested to cooperate with CCAMLR’s Catch Documentation Scheme (CDS) for Dissostichus spp. Parties were also requested to report on the implementation of the CDS to the CITES Secretariat and for the information to be communicated to CCAMLR (CCAMLR-XXII, 2003, paragraphs 14.1 and 14.2). This document is submitted in accordance with the abovementioned resolution and decisions.

4. To date, no information has been made available to CCAMLR by the CITES Secretariat pursuant Resolution Conf. 12.4 with regard to the international trade in toothfish.

While supporting CCAMLR’s attempt to rectify this situation, we don’t belive its proposal to the CITES Secretariat goes far enough.  The history described above leads to but one conclusion:  Listing under CITES is absolutely necessary to the long-term survival of toothfish.  The 2002 compromise failed to reign in nations involved in fishing and trading in toothfish.  CITES parties that are not parties to CCAMLR have been given a chance, and they have failed.  For the sake of the toothfish — and for the sake of CITES’ credibility — toothfish species should be proposed for listing at the next CITES CoP.  Sea Shepherd Legal intends to work hard to achieve this goal.

Please support our work at CoP17 with a tax-deductible donation.

Sea Shepherd Legal Lands in South Africa for CITES CoP 17

The Sea Shepherd Legal team has landed in Johannesburg, South Africa, as an official NGO observer of the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  Over the next two weeks, we will be advocating for greater protection for endangered marine wildlife.  Along the way, we will be posting daily recaps, calls to action, and important developments.

SSL Logo


CITES is a global environmental treaty regulating international trade in endangered species.  While trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn grabs many of the headlines, CITES also plays a critical role in trade related to marine wildlife.

Unfortunately, marine species have often receive short shrift under CITES.  This is especially true for species targeted by commercial fisheries, as many parties have insisted that regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) serve as the proper vehicles for governance.

Yet, it is undisputed that CITES was designed to target trade in all threatened and endangered species.  The treaty makes no distinction between marine and terrestrial wildlife, and the presence of other governance instruments (like RFMOs) neither logically nor legally precludes CITES protection.

Building on the successes of the 16th CoP in Thailand — where the parties agreed to list five species of sharks and all species of manta rays in Appendix II  — Sea Shepherd Legal will be pushing for further listings for marine wildlife.

Proposals this year include the silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis), thresher sharks (Alopias spp.), and devil rays (Mobula spp.), along with nautilus species (Nautilidae spp.) and two species of reef fish (Pterapogon kauderni and Holacanthus clarionensis).


The silky shark is taken in large numbers in target and by-catch fisheries.  By 2013, the proportion of silky fins in the international market had increased to levels as high as 7.47%.

In addition to pushing for the adoption of these proposals — hardly a guaranteed outcome, unfortunately — we will be highlighting the key role of enforcement, including Sea Shepherd’s collaborative efforts with government forces to combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing, as well as to protect the critically endangered vaquita and totoaba, both of which are listed in CITES Appendix I.

Stay tuned to this blog for updates, and consider making a donation to support our work to leverage CITES in favor of marine wildlife.


SSL Backs Effort to Secure ESA Listing for the Oceanic Whitetip

Run a Google search for the oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus), and you’ll be inundated with sites describing how “dangerous” this shark is.  Tales of the whitetip preying on shipwrecked sailors have given it a reputation as a “menace” with a “bad attitude.”  One site, ostensibly dedicated to the dissemination of objective information, analogizes the whitetip to a calculating criminal:  “The oceanic whitetip may only have seven unprovoked attacks and two fatalities on the books, but that’s because it might be getting away with many of its crimes by not leaving any evidence.”

Amidst all the sensationalism, there is a grain of truth:  The oceanic whitetip is associated with crime, violence, and death.  Unfortunately for the shark (and for journalists looking for sexy headlines), the whitetip is the victim, not the perpetrator.


The oceanic whitetip shark. Photo credit: Joe Romeiro (2010).

As with so many other sharks, the oceanic whitetip is being devastated by the combined forces of targeted shark-fishing (including for the fin trade), by-catch, and habitat degradation.  Population studies reveal an alarming trend:  This most “dangerous” of sharks is being wiped out by people, and it’s happening at a dizzying pace.

In 2006, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the oceanic whitetip as “vulnerable” worldwide.  The IUCN came to this conclusion based on rigorous population studies, finding, inter alia, that the oceanic whitetip had: (1) suffered a population reduction of greater than or equal to 30% over the last 10 years or three generations, and (2) that a population reduction of greater than or equal to 30% was projected or suspected to be met within the next 10 years or three generations based on actual or potential levels of exploitation.  Those are big, frightening numbers — and the problem has only grown worse since the IUCN made its determination in 2006.

The good news is that international and domestic law contain provisions to protect species facing extinction or a threat thereof.  Internationally, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) serves as a bulwark against cross-border trade that exacerbates the risk of extinction.  Domestically, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) provides additional protections.

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In 2013, responding to a proposal co-sponsored by the United States, the Conference of the Parties agreed to list the oceanic whitetip in CITES Appendix II.  Appendix II contains species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled.  Accordingly, international trade in Appendix II species requires a permit issued by the nation of export.  Under CITES, the exporting nation shall not issue a permit unless it has determined that trade will not be detrimental to survival of the species in the wild.   Although Appendix II protections are not as robust as the protections afforded under Appendix I (which, among other things, requires an import permit in addition to an export permit, building in a second layer of control), the 2013 CITES listing certainly represents progress for the oceanic whitetip.

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Now it’s time for the ESA to get into the mix.  Although CITES plays a key role in protecting species from threats related to international trade, many of the activities harming the oceanic whitetip fall outside of the CITES framework.  By-catch is perhaps the best example.  If tuna fleets incidentally catch sharks — throwing them back in the water dead or dying, as is usually the case — CITES has little to say about that.  Again, the convention only covers international trade.  Likewise, if nationals of a given country harvest oceanic whitetip for sale in the domestic markets of that same country, CITES is not implicated.  The ESA, on the other hand, starts to pick up the slack, covering  important non-trade-related activities (subject, of course, to jurisdictional limitations).

Good tidings may be on the way:  the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently made a positive 90-day finding on a petition to list the oceanic whitetip as endangered or threatened under the ESA.  The petition, filed by Defenders of Wildlife (Defenders), provided overwhelming evidence of the need for listing.  In its  90-day finding, NMFS made the threshold determination that the petition “present[ed] substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action of listing the oceanic whitetip shark worldwide as threatened or endangered may be warranted.”  81 Fed. Reg. at 1385.  The next step is a 12-month finding, wherein NMFS will determine whether listing is in fact warranted.  (Short of a worldwide listing, NMFS could also list “distinct population segments” of the oceanic whitetip.)

In the meantime, Defenders has not let up.  On Monday, Defenders filed comments on the positive 90-day finding, providing new scientific evidence of the whitetip’s plight and a variety of other information to encourage NMFS to make the right call.  Sea Shepherd Legal was honored to join these comments, standing alongside Defenders and several other prominent groups (including Animal Welfare Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society International, the Humane Society of the United States, and WildEarth Guardians) to demand protection for this imperiled species.  Please click here to view the comments in their entirety.

To help support our legal work to save sharks and other marine species, please consider making a tax-deductible donation or contacting us for volunteer opportunities (

Sea Shepherd Legal Submits Comments Encouraging NMFS To List the Smooth Hammerhead and Bigeye Thresher under the ESA

Sea Shepherd Legal (SSL), together with Friends of Animals and Turtle Island Restoration Network, recently submitted comments encouraging the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to list the smooth hammerhead and bigeye thresher sharks as endangered or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.  SSL’s comments are available here and here.


The smooth hammerhead (Sphyrna zygaena) is targeted for its fins and suffers from a high rate of by-catch mortality.

ca. 1990-2002, Cocos Island National Park, Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica --- Bigeye Thresher Shark's Head --- Image by © Jeffrey L. Rotman/Corbis

Bigeye Thresher Shark’ — Photo credit: Jeffrey L. Rotman/Corbis

The smooth hammerhead and bigeye thresher are targeted primarily for their fins.  At its worst — and at its most typical — finning involves hacking off the shark’s fins and throwing back the carcass — while the sharks are alive.  (For a glimpse of this horrific practice, see  The process is as irresponsible as it is barbaric.  Shark populations, including populations of these two species, are crashing at alarming rates around the world.

The threat presented by shark finning is magnified by the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms at the global scale.  Despite the intense fishing pressure on these sharks—from directed commercial, artisanal, and recreational fishing, exacerbated via indiscriminate by-catch—laws protecting these species are anemic.  International agreements on sharks are few and far between.  Where they exist, these agreements lack regulatory teeth and enforcement power.  Laws at the national level are not much better.  Indeed, some of the biggest shark-fishing nations (e.g. Pakistan) lack any laws specific to sharks.  Other nations lack any meaningful capacity to enforce laws on the books.  Even the nations that seem to boast the combination of tailored legislation and enforcement power—like members of the European Union—wither under scrutiny.  Their laws are rife with loopholes and enforcement of even basic catch limits is grossly inadequate.

In short, existing regulatory mechanisms are part of the problem.  Laws are failing sharks in all corners of the world.

Help us protect sharks like the smooth hammerhead and bigeye thresher by donating now.

Nota: Una traducción al español estará disponible muy pronto.

SSL Pushes Back on Plan to Gut the ESA Petition Process

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is known as the heavyweight champion of species protection.  The ESA’s reputation is well deserved — 99% of the plants and animals under the Act’s protection have been saved from extinction.  If a species is listed as “threatened” or “endangered,” Section 9 of the ESA prohibits any person (including state and federal actors) from “taking” a member of that species.   The United Supreme Court famously upheld an extremely broad interpretation of “take”:  It includes not only more traditional forms of take (like capturing or pursuing a species) but also habitat destruction.

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For all its potential punch, however, the ESA is only effective if a species is listed.  Without that action, this prize fighter stays in its corner.

Listing can happen in two ways: The federal agencies in charge of administering the ESA — U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) — can propose a listing, or citizens can file a petition.  With limited resources, political pressures, and the ever-present specter of regulatory capture, FWS and NMFS have not always done their jobs.  Indeed, “[m]ost controversial listings have been initiated through the citizen petition process rather than by agency action.”  Holly Doremus, Preserving Citizen Participation in the Era of Reinvention: The Endangered Species Act Example, 25 Ecology L. Q. 707, 709 (1999).  It is citizens—without a strong economic stake in the status quo—who have demanded implementation of the statutory agenda.

Unfortunately, FWS and NMFS have proposed changes to the petition process that would undermine citizens’ ability to achieve listings.  SSL has challenged these proposed changes.  Among other modifications, FWS and NMFS have proposed several amendments that would increase the burden on petitioners — perhaps to the point of deterring some meritorious petitions altogether — and tweak the rules in favor of interests opposed to conservation.

The following four changes stand out as particularly misguided:

  • Requirement that petitioners solicit the participation of every state agency in every state that the subject species is present (for some shark species that would include every state on the Atlantic seaboard)
  • Requirement that petitioners collect and submit prejudicial information (thereby undermining arguments in favor of listing the species)
  • Requirement that petitioners only seek listing of one species at a time (no more efficient, multi-species petitions – even when multiple species face the same threats, at the same time, in the same area)
  • Requirement that petitioners provide “substantial information” at the outset to show that a species should be listed (with the exorbitant cost associated with gathering scientific data and purchasing supporting scientific articles, this would deprive many citizens the opportunity to file for species protection; citizen petitions are a vital component of species protection under the ESA)

While NMFS and FWS claim that the proposed changes will promote efficiency in the listing process, SSL firmly believes that these changes will not only ultimately result in greater inefficiency but also significantly chill citizen-initiated petitions to the detriment of wildlife.  If changes are necessary to enhance the efficiency of the listing process, such changes ought to be outcome-neutral and based on a fair organizing principal.  Here, the changes cater almost exclusively to interests opposed to additional listings and habitat designations.  In short, far fewer species will be listed, and far more will be lost.

SSL is pushing back.  In our comments to FWS and NMFS, we described the statutory and prudential flaws that run throughout the proposed amendments to the petition process.

If congressional intent to protect species from extinction at any cost is to be respected, changes that deter petitions should be off the table altogether.  Any other result is contrary to the ESA’s purpose and legacy.

Help fund our work to improve the ESA and to protect vulnerable species.

Nota: Una traducción al español estará disponible muy pronto.

SSL Goes to Bat for the Common Thresher

On March 3, 2015, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a positive 90-day finding on a petition to list the common thresher shark under the Endangered Species Act.  Based on information in the petition and available in NMFS’ files, NMFS found substantial evidence to suggest that a worldwide listing of the common thresher may be warranted.  NMFS placed particular emphasis on the common thresher’s continued decline due to recreational fishing, commercial fishing, by-catch, and direct catch associated with the trade in shark fins.

The common thresher stands out with its unique, whip-like caudal fin.

The common thresher stands out with its unique, whip-like caudal fin.

A thresher fin at market

A thresher fin at market

Although the positive 90-day finding is good news for the common thresher — and this shark could use some good news — it is too early to celebrate.  Under the ESA, a positive 90-day finding is simply a threshold decision indicating that further evaluation is merited.  Later, at the 12-month stage, NMFS could ultimately decide to reject the petition.

To bolster the case for listing, Sea Shepherd Legal (SSL) joined forces with original petitioner Friends of Animals, as well as with Turtle Island Restoration Network and WildEarth Guardians.  We submitted extensive comments canvassing the many threats to the common thresher.  In particular, we highlighted the following factors:

  • Sharp population declines in significant portions of the common thresher’s range:  For example, recent studies of common thresher shark populations in two major regions, the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea, strongly suggest that the population has declined in these regions by 80% and 99%, respectively.
  • Overfishing by both the commercial and recreational sectors:  Thresher species (including the common thresher shark) make up approximately 2.3% of the Hong Kong shark fin market—the largest shark fin market in the world.  This equates to approximately 0.5 to 4.5 million sharks per year.  Recreational fisherman have also taken their toll.  The majority of recreationally-caught common thresher sharks are captured using a caudal-­based technique, in which the hook is placed in the shark’s tail fin and the fish is reeled in backwards.  This technique is incompatible with the shark’s respiratory system, which requires forward movement.  Caudal-based techniques are associated with high fatality rates, yet they continue to lead the pack in terms of popularity.
  • The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms:  Protective regulations exist in a limited number of jurisdictions, and even then enforcement is often weak and ineffective.
  • The common thresher’s intrinsic vulnerability:  Like most pelagic sharks, the common thresher is particularly vulnerable due to its long gestation period, slow growth, and relatively low fecundity.

Help us protect the common thresher and other sharks by making a donation.

Nota: Una traducción al español estará disponible muy pronto.