In practice, the picture is far more complicated. CITES does not mandate units, so the trade in sharks and shark fins can be reported in either ‘number of specimens’ or in kg. A trade permit made out in number of specimens by the exporting country may be reported in kg by the importing country and vice versa. Also, import reporting is not mandatory under CITES for Appendix II listed species.
All this means is that trade data in the CITES trade database are almost useless for the purposes of tracking and monitoring the trade. They are at best indicative. This can clearly be seen from just looking at a handful of sharks that are in dire need of proper protection from overexploitation.
Here are examples of the findings.
Most of the trade in silky sharks is recorded in kg, so we will look at the weight-based records for 2017-2022 first:
On the left are the quantities reported by the exporting countries and on the right the corresponding quantities as reported by the importing countries. What is immediately obvious is that the records don’t match, so we have no real idea about the magnitude of the trade between countries.
Poor reporting practices also lead to vast mismatches between the ‘trade terms’, i.e. what is being reported as being shipped.
Whilst exporters claim to be exporting predominantly fins, importers overwhelmingly report bodies. This distinction is not a trivial problem, in fact it is of utmost significance. If you are shipping 470 tons of dried fins, that is very different from shipping 533 tons of bodies.
If we assume the average silky shark weighs around 250kg, then the 533 tons of bodies reported would translate into around 2,000 sharks. The fin weight to body weight ratio differs for different shark species but will be somewhere in the 2-6% range for most sharks. If we use 5%, then the fin weight of the silky shark would be 12.5kg. That means that 470 tons of fins would actually translate into 37,600 sharks, which is a very different proposition to 2,000 sharks. The picture would get even worse if we consider that fins are likely shipped dried, so weigh even less.
Adding in the trade records with ‘number of specimens’ as the unit makes the picture worse, not better. Exporters report an additional 67,783 fins whereas importers record only 361 fins for the same 5-year period. This sort of mismatch turns CITES trade reporting into a farce.
It is really important to pause at this point and to ask “What can we ACTUALLY learn from these trade data?”. If we cannot tell if these bodies or fins come from 2,000 sharks or 37,600 sharks or even 50,000 sharks, what use is it to analyse the trade data? What purpose does CITES reporting actually serve other than complying with the paper-terms of the convention? Where is the conservation and protection benefit for the species?
Given that it is well known that most of the shark fin trade goes to China via Hong Kong, we should take a closer look at how the trade to HK is reported in kg:
Sri Lanka claims to be exporting 317 tons of silky shark to HK whereas Hong Kong claims to be receiving just 28 tons. On the other hand HK states it received 69.5 tons from Costa Rica, which does not report enough trade to HK to even feature in the top 5 list. Given that these records are for direct trade, that is without involving a transit country, they should match.
Obviously drawing conclusions from just one species of sharks would be premature, so we will look at another species that receives a lot of attention, the endangered pelagic thresher shark, which is targeted for its exceptionally long fins.
We analysed the trade in the species Alopias Pelagicus, which is the most endangered of these species. We again analysed the CITES trade data in kg and then did a cross-check on number of specimens reported. These sharks were also listed in 2017, so we analyse trade data from 2017-2022.
The main trade is between Ecuador and Peru and the trade is of great concern to the NGOs monitoring it due to its lack of sustainability.
At least in this instance the top importer and exporter rankings match between what is reported by exporters vs. by importers, even though there is a huge discrepancy in the quantities reported as we saw with the silky shark as well. The ranking for the top trade terms match with both sides agreeing that the trade is basically all conducted in fins:
Further, there are almost no trade records for trade recorded by ‘number of specimen’, which gives a more consistent picture than in the case of the silky shark. This shows that it would certainly be possible to get a better approximation of reality from CITES trade data if the efforts are made to:
- Keep the units and trade terms reported consistent for a species (or a range of similar species)
- Make sure that all importers submit trade data and that exports can be reconciled with imports
To achieve this requires rectifying the shortcomings of the present system. The first point is simply about demanding consistency from the signatory countries. CITES and conservation agencies have been encouraging signatory countries to do this for decades without any real progress. But rolling out electronic permits could ‘force’ consistency, by dictating what units to use for what species. Permits would only be generated if they were correctly filled in.
All signatories need to move to electronic permits and link those permits to customs data. That way permits can be matched to shipments and reconciliation between importers and exporters will be possible, but only if import reporting is made mandatory (which it isn’t for Appendix II listed species). It is critical that CITES mandates import permits for all trade in listed species.
All of these discrepancies beg the question, how can there be any proof that these species is being managed and protected; or that this trade is sustainable? The most basic reconciliations are not possible. The idea that ‘someone’ is properly monitoring populations to make these assessments to update Non-Detriment Findings is just as fanciful as hoping that we can learn anything useful from looking at CITES trade data.