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Effort to control trade in great white sharks gets teeth from international community


Vilified in popular culture as a relentless man-eater, the great white shark finally received today global recognition as a persecuted species worthy of protection, as participants of the 13th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) adopted a proposal to improve management and monitoring of trade in jaws, teeth and fins from the world’s largest predatory fish. Led by the governments of Madagascar and Australia, the proposal to list the great white shark on Appendix II--which will provide key data on trade and allow better management of the species--was approved by a wide margin, with 87 in favor of listing, 34 opposed, with 9 abstentions. Proposals require two-thirds of those voting for approval.

"I’m thankful that the international community recognizes this species for what it really is--a perfectly adapted oceanic predator and a key player in many of the world’s marine ecosystems," said Dr. Ramón Bonfil, a specialist on great white shark ecology and a conservation fisheries scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Dr. Bonfil, who is also a member of the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Shark Specialist Group and a strong proponent for the initiative to list great white sharks on CITES noted: "In spite of its reputed ferocity, this species is ironically a victim of what is undoubtedly the planet’s most deadly species--humans. This listing will help us manage the trade that currently threatens the great white shark by requiring data that harvests are not a detriment to the species.

The listing of the great white shark is noteworthy in that fish species are rarely included in the CITES Appendices. Two shark species have thus far been listed: the whale shark, the largest of all fish species, growing up to eighteen meters in length (60 feet), and the second largest fish species, the basking shark. Both species are filter-feeders, and at risk from over-fishing.

Reaching some six-and-a-half meters in length (21 feet), the great white shark is a member of the mackerel shark family, an assemblage of sharks that include the mako and the porbeagle. Traditionally, the great white was considered by the scientific community to be the most aggressive and dangerous of all shark species. This assumption was elevated to the public level by Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film "Jaws," based on Peter Benchley’s best-selling book and widely recognized as the film industry’s first summer blockbuster. Since then, field studies on the species have revealed that the great white shark is rarely a man-eater. Most attacks occur when great whites confuse humans with their preferred prey--sea lions, seals and other marine mammals. In fact, great white sharks, along with many other shark species, are now thought to be endangered by a combination of game fishing and commercial harvests for fins, which are highly sought in Asia’s fish markets for shark fin soup. There are no exact figures on regional or worldwide populations of great whites.

"The great white shark has been wrongly portrayed as an instinctive killing machine by Hollywood and the media for too long," added Bonfil. "Perhaps now we can lift this veil of misunderstanding and appreciate the great white shark--which has roamed the ocean largely unchanged for millions of years--as an impressive animal that we need to cherish and protect."

John Delaney | EurekAlert!
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