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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Global Protections Needed for Polar Bears and Sharks

When the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) gathers next month in Thailand, more than 170 member nations will consider a number of important proposals to protect imperiled species. One such measure proposed by the United States and backed by Russia—two of the five nations with polar bear populations—would “uplist” the polar bear from Appendix II to Appendix I, thereby banning the international commercial trade in polar bear skins and other parts and products.

The very survival of these majestic animals is at stake.

PolarbearsThe polar bear is listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and faces extraordinary pressures, including melting ice, trophy hunting, and pollution. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed the polar bear as vulnerable based on a projected population reduction of more than 30 percent within three generations (45 years) due to a decrease in distribution and habitat quality. The threats are so grave that a recent analysis even suggests polar bears may have to be fed by humans in order to survive.

Despite declining populations, hundreds of polar bears are shot every year in Canada and their body parts, including skins, teeth and claws, are then bought and sold on the open international market. The CITES listing, if adopted, will stop these majestic creatures from being killed for international commercial trade. A similar proposal was rejected by CITES in 2010, and at the time, the 27 countries in the European Union voted as a bloc against it. But now the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries are strongly backing the measure, which may signal increased support from the EU and more hope on the horizon for the polar bear’s survival. 

We are especially grateful to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for leading this effort, and we call on other nations to join the U.S., Russia, and others in advocating for stronger global polar bear protections.

The United States also joined with Colombia and Brazil on a proposal to regulate international trade of oceanic whitetip sharks. This species was once common in all oceans but has been depleted mainly due to high demand for its large, distinctive, easily identifiable white-tipped fins for shark fin soup. These sharks are often caught as bycatch by tuna fishing vessels. The high value of their fins and low value of their meat means they are commonly finned when caught (throwing their mutilated live bodies back in the water), even though they are known to have relatively good rates of survival when caught and released intact.

Studies estimate that between 220,000 and 1,210,000 oceanic whitetip sharks were traded globally in 2000, representing about 2 percent by weight of the global fin trade. The IUCN lists them as critically endangered in the Atlantic ocean and vulnerable globally. Regulation of international trade would provide an important tool for preventing finning and depletion of these sharks.

We applaud the United States for once again taking a leadership role in protecting sharks from the fin trade, and we thank Congressman Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., for sponsoring a Capitol Hill briefing on shark finning and advocating for the protection of the oceanic whitetip and other sharks. American citizens should be proud that their government officials are fighting for the protection of rare species across the world. Our colleagues from The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International will be attending the CITES meeting next month, and will keep you posted on these proposals with dispatches from the field.


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