Marine fisheries and CITES: Breaking the cycle of overexploitation

22 March 2010

International trade can drive unsustainable fishing, particularly for high demand or high priced species that are not well managed. For example, bluefin tuna, sharks and corals are being overfished to the point of endangerment to meet demand for sushi, shark fin soup, and jewellery.  Many fish species are widely traded, providing markets for developed and developing country fisheries. This trade often makes an important contribution to income, health, and employment, but there are significant environmental and economic downsides. Global fishery management is largely inadequate to ensure the sustainability of marine stocks, with overexploitation threatening the livelihoods of millions of people and coastal economies around the world.

Efforts have been made to use market measures to break this cycle through consumer education, trade sanctions against illegal fishing vessels and countries, and limitations on subsidies that drive overfishing. The most powerful market intervention for species threatened with extinction is a ban on trade under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). For species that could support trade at sustainable levels, but would be at risk of extinction if trade were not controlled, CITES listing under Appendix II requires exporting countries to certify that their trade in the species is "not detrimental" to the species survival. Current proposals to list Atlantic bluefin tuna on Appendix I, and eight shark species and 31 species of pink and red corals on Appendix II, are an acknowledgement of the complete failure of national and international fisheries management to prevent the overexploitation of these resources.  Many fisheries stocks around the world are depleted and many more are not monitored. This suggests that if fisheries management continues to be absent or weak, additional marine species will surely be candidates for CITES listing.

The Link between Trade and Overfishing

Bluefin tuna is prized for sushi and can fetch astoundingly high prices -- at Japan's first auction of 2010, a single 233 kg. bluefin tuna sold for US$177,000. Shark fins are the key ingredient in shark fin soup, a famous dish that can sell for between US$13 and US$60 a bowl in restaurants in China, US$100 a bowl in restaurants in Singapore and Malaysia and US$400 in the most expensive restaurants in the United States. While shark fins historically were only consumed by the wealthy on special occasions, rising affluence in China and other Asian countries has led to soaring demand for fins. Shark fins are one of the most valuable seafood products -- those from oceanic whitetip sharks sell for US$45 to US$85 per kg. and the average wholesale price for dried scalloped hammerhead shark fins is US$135 per kg. Demand for the fins alone, and the relatively low value of the meat, makes many shark species subject to the removal of their fins and subsequent discard of the remaining carcass at sea, a practice known as ‘finning'.

Fish and fishery products in general are widely traded, with more than 37 percent of total production entering international commerce as various food and feed products. Seafood is the most traded food commodity internationally and fish and shellfish exports from developing countries exceed the value of coffee, rubber, cocoa, tea, tobacco, meat and rice combined. Developing countries benefit from this trade by exporting high-value seafood to developed countries, importing low-value seafood and using the surplus to purchase other goods and services. But according to the World Bank, the benefits from the globalisation of fish trade have been reduced by overexploitation, as ineffective governance of fisheries has allowed the depletion of fish stocks and with it the natural capital of many countries. The World Bank estimates that US$50 billion is lost globally - equivalent to more than half the potential value of the global catch - because of poor fisheries management and resulting overexploitation.

Fundamental incentives that arise from the common pool aspect of fishery resources motivate fishermen to target stocks even when they are declining. Most fisheries management systems around the world are unable to effectively limit this ‘race for the last fish'. For bluefin tuna, efforts to sustainably manage the level of catch have failed miserably in the face of overcapacity, high demand, and high prices. For years, fishing nations have been unable to follow scientific advice in setting quotas under the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), and further unable to enforce the quotas that were authorised. For sharks, the story is different.  Despite efforts by some countries, shark catches remain largely unmanaged by governments and by regional fisheries management organisations.  As a result, catches, discards, and waste have risen with the increasing demand for shark fin soup, and the reported data have failed to tell the full story. Only the clear decreases in population size indicate the implications of this failure. Likewise, the corals, sponges and other non-target species are usually neglected in management plans.

Fishing has traditionally provided essential local food, livelihoods and export earnings for developed and developing countries alike. But artisanal uses as well as domestic and export incomes from marine capture fisheries are left unprotected by fisheries management systems unable to contain pressures for overfishing.  A recent study in the academic journal Science found that seafood's contribution as a global source of protein and livelihood is precarious, largely because many exporting developing countries lack the institutions necessary to prevent the deleterious ecosystem impacts of seafood production in the face of increasing pressures from international trade. But the failure to control overfishing is by no means confined to developing countries, as evidenced by the number of overexploited stocks directly managed by developed countries. The now-classic example is the Atlantic cod fishery of the Grand Banks, once an economic mainstay of eastern Canada.  Its collapse in the early 1990s occurred under the active management of Canadian fisheries officials. In turn, the near-extinction of the Atlantic bluefin tuna speaks to the short-sighted pursuit of fishing sector profits over sustainability and the collective failure of major tuna fishing nations, led by European Union countries and Japan, to effectively limit catches. Indeed, the inclusion in CITES of any commercial fish species was opposed for many years by a blocking minority of countries including Japan, Iceland, and Norway, who argued that CITES should not have a role in fisheries management.

Fishing activities globally are so heavily supported by subsidies that the global marine catch sector would otherwise operate at a loss. Subsidies for fishing, such as those for vessel construction and operation, create perverse incentives for continued fishing in the face of declining catches. The result is not only overfishing but the creation and support of fleet overcapacity that drives further overfishing. In turn, efforts to control catches are often undermined by vested interests in surplus capacity.

Overcapacity, high demand, and high prices are key factors in generating illegal fishing activity (illegal fishing, along with unreported and unregulated fishing, is commonly referred to as 'IUU fishing'). Globally, the illegal catch of fish is estimated to be between 11 and 26 million tonnes, worth US$10 billion to US$23.5 billion annually, or potentially a quarter of the value of all legally reported fish catch. The high price commanded by bluefin tuna has led to illegal fishing activities, including illegal spotting planes, pirate fishing, underreporting of catch and fishing during the closed season in pursuit of the increasingly rare fish. The rapid rise in the ranching of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean has also fuelled overfishing as bluefin juveniles, often smaller than the legal catch size, are caught for fattening in net cages.

The Impact of Trade on CITES Proposed Species

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna

Atlantic bluefin tuna is an emblematic species that has been driven toward extinction by high demand in Asia. In the last few years, nearly all of the declared Mediterranean bluefin fishery production has been exported, primarily to Japan. In fact, Japan's total imports of 32,356 tonnes of bluefin tuna from the east Atlantic stock reported to ICCAT in 2007 exceeded the total allowable catch for that year of 29,500 tonnes. Scientists from ICCAT have concluded that eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna face an unprecedented decline, with spawning stock less than 15 percent of baseline levels.

Atlantic bluefin tuna have suffered major depletion since the 1960s. The large population off the coast of Brazil was extirpated after six years of longline fishing in the 1960s. The significant declines in the remaining West Atlantic stock occurred during the 1970-1985 period. Most of the decline in the East Atlantic and Mediterranean stock has occurred over the past 10 years, and continued fishing at current rates is likely to drive the spawning stocks down to 6 percent of baseline levels.

ICCAT has a history of ignoring scientific advice in setting quotas. From 2007 through 2009, scientists recommended a catch of 15,000 tonnes for eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin stocks, but this was over-ruled in favour of quotas of 29,500 tonnes in 2007, 28,000 tonnes in 2008 and 22,000 tonnes in 2009. Even the higher authorised quotas are exceeded. In 2007, according to ICCAT statistics, the total Mediterranean catch was 61,000 tonnes, more than twice the authorised limit. ICCAT estimates that illegal fishing may add another 30 percent onto the official catch figures. Even worse, the western Atlantic bluefin population is so devastated that the main fishing countries (Canada, Japan and the USA) have been unable to catch their combined quotas since 2003.


While Atlantic bluefin catch is managed under the auspices of ICCAT, international and national management of most shark species is extremely poor or non-existent.  As a result, catch data worldwide are notoriously unreliable and much of the catch, bycatch and discards go unreported. While the reported landings of sharks have increased somewhat in recent years, estimated global landings of the larger shark species targeted for their fins have almost doubled from 67,000 tonnes in 1990 to 130,000 tonnes in 2007. Because of the practice of finning and the non-reporting of bycatch, total catch, as opposed to landings, is likely to be considerably higher.  To produce the shark fins that are sold each year, it has been estimated that almost 1.7 million tonnes of sharks would have to be caught. Key shark-exporting countries are Taiwan, Spain, Panama, Costa Rica, Japan and Canada. Spain is the largest exporter of frozen shark fins to the Hong Kong market, the single biggest shark fin market in the world.

Eight shark species have been proposed for listing under CITES Appendix II, including porbeagle, spiny dogfish, oceanic whitetip and scalloped hammerhead, along with four species of sharks that are proposed for listing due to their similarity in appearance to the scalloped hammerhead. The life history characteristics of sharks, such as a slow growth rate and low reproductive potential, make them vulnerable to overfishing and slow to recover once populations have been depleted. The demand for shark fins, meat, liver oil and other products, and the resulting fishing pressure, has driven numerous shark populations to the brink of extinction. Sharks now represent the greatest percentage of threatened marine species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of threatened species.. Due to their position at the top of the food chain, sharks help regulate ocean ecosystems, and their loss can cause drastic and irreversible changes to the marine environment and the economy on which it depends.

Oceanic whitetip sharks are one of the more common tropical pelagic species taken as bycatch in tuna and swordfish fisheries. Given the high value of their fins in relation to the value of the meat, they tend to be subject to finning, and their fins are one of the most common products in the Asian shark fin trade. Oceanic whitetip shark populations have declined 60-70 percent in the northwest and central Atlantic Ocean and have suffered up to a 10-fold decline from baseline in the central Pacific Ocean. The scalloped hammerhead shark is largely exploited for its fins and has seen declines of 50-90 percent in abundance in recent decades in many areas of its range, including South Africa, the northwest and western central Atlantic, Brazil, Ecuador, and Columbia. It has also been subject to extensive fishing by longline vessels operating illegally in coastal waters of the western Indian Ocean. The porbeagle shark is one of the relatively few shark species exploited not only for its fins, but also for its meat, which is similar to swordfish. Porbeagle populations have declined to less than 30 percent of baseline levels, with the rates of decline increasing in recent years.

European demand for spiny dogfish meat is the key driver of fisheries directed primarily at mature females.   As a result the species has been severely depleted around the world. Fish and chip shops in the United Kingdom have historically used cod, haddock, plaice, or hake but as stocks of those species declined, some shop owners turned to lower-priced dogfish to meet demand.However, import prices for spiny dogfish have also begun to rise in Europe as spiny dogfish numbers decline. It remains to be seen what species will be targeted next in the ongoing serial depletion of global fish stocks.


Corals play a key role as the foundation of seafloor ecosystems and as a home to millions of marine species. Corals tend to have long life spans and low reproduction rates, making regrowth difficult and slow. Unregulated exploitation of precious corals around the world has led to local declines of the most heavily targeted species and has altered the marine communities that depend on them. The thirty-one species of the family Corallidae are intensively exploited to supply international demand for jewellery and other products. As one example, overexploitation of Corallium rubrum in the Mediterranean Sea has caused a nearly 70 percent decline in the past few decades. This decline has increased pressure on the remaining population and on Pacific precious corals. Removal of pink and red corals deprives other marine species of food and shelter, changing the seascape at a time when it is already under attack from climate change and overfishing.

Breaking the Cycle of Overexploitation

The powerful economic incentives that drive overfishing - poorly managed fisheries, high global demand and subsidised production - typically overwhelm efforts to conserve fisheries through conventional fisheries command-and-control management.  As a statement from the governments of Australia, New Zealand, and the United States put it:

While management is a necessary element for sustainability, the record is painfully clear:  even sophisticated management systems in developed countries have failed in many cases to preserve stock sustainability, and management does not address the market- and trade- distorting effects of subsidies.

It naturally follows that to break the cycle of overexploitation of marine species, we should address the harmful economic incentives directly, by reducing demand for unsustainably fished species and eliminating subsidies that reduce the cost of fishing. At the same time, tough regulations against illegal fishing are necessary to limit the significant financial benefits accruing to those engaged in these activities.  Where high global demand and weak management have conspired to drive down populations to fractions of their former abundance, restrictions on international trade are necessary in an attempt to preserve and rebuild populations.

To reduce demand for overexploited species, environmental non-governmental organisations have launched several campaigns over the years.  For example, in Asia, WildAid is sponsoring an advertising campaign with the basketball star Yao Ming declaring that he will not eat shark fin soup. The campaign has recruited numerous well-known entertainers, athletes, and business people to take the pledge. In the United States, SeaWeb campaigns for consumers to sign a "Too Precious to Wear" pledge to refuse to purchase products made of real coral and to support protection for red and pink coral under CITES. The campaign has enlisted the support of major retailers, including Tiffany & Co. Some organisations are attempting to more broadly redirect demand from unsustainable to sustainable fisheries.  For example, some seafood pocket cards inform consumers about sustainable seafood choices, such as troll or pole caught skipjack tuna instead of bluefin.

The member nations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) are formally committed as part of the Doha Round of negotiations to reducing the billions of dollars of government subsidies that contribute to overfishing.  The WTO 2005 Hong Kong Declaration strongly reaffirmed the need to "strengthen disciplines on subsidies in the fisheries sector, including through the prohibition of certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing." Achievement of this objective as part of the Doha Round would remove a substantial economic incentive that harms the marine environment. However, given the uncertainty surrounding WTO negotiations, it is far from clear when a deal will be clinched.

Some efforts to combat IUU fishing focus on limiting trade in IUU products.  The Food and Agriculture Organization recently adopted an agreement on port state measures to address IUU fishing.  The agreement establishes procedures for port states to obtain information from vessels requesting entry so as to determine whether the vessels are involved in IUU fishing, and if so, to deny such vessels entry. Regional fisheries management organisations have also adopted measures that include the closure of ports or markets to vessels that have been identified as having engaged in IUU fishing activities. Both the European Union and the United States have enacted domestic measures to prohibit trade in IUU fish, including provisions to prohibit imports from vessels engaged in IUU fishing and from countries that fail to implement regulations to deter and eliminate IUU fishing.

CITES provides for the strongest intervention in markets to protect species threatened with extinction. While CITES is clearly not effective if commercial and political pressures prevent a species from being listed, a CITES trade prohibition can have a beneficial effect for listed species.  For example, the hawksbill sea turtle was in danger of extinction due to the excessive demand for tortoise shell products after large scale exploitation and trade began in the 1950s. The hawksbill was listed in Appendix I in the 1970s, but it was not until 1994 that Japan, a major importer, accepted the listing and ceased its trade in hawksbill shells. While the hawksbill continues to be critically endangered, recent increases in Caribbean nesting populations are encouraging.

To certify that their trade in the species is not detrimental to the species survival, an Appendix II listing requires exporting countries to document that they are sustainably managing their exploitation of a species and prohibiting trade with countries that cannot document sustainable management. The implementation of a comprehensive fisheries management program alone would be a tremendous advance for the largely unregulated sharks and corals proposed for listing.


In sum, the record of many species subject to conventional fishery management is that they are unable to withstand the economic and political pressures that come from high demand.  By limiting the harmful impact of such demand, export prohibitions may turn out to be one of the most effective approaches to conserve highly sought after seafood such as bluefin tuna.  For other species in demand, such as sharks and corals, the fact that we are discussing the regulation of trade in an attempt to reduce the risk of extinction demonstrates just how far many governments and international bodies are willing to allow species to be depleted before efforts are made to manage stocks.

Leslie Delagran is an Economist at Oceana and Eric Bilsky is Assistant General Counsel at Oceana

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