Unregulated fishing and international trade in shark products for human consumption have led to a precipitous drop in numbers.
An estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year, according to an authoritative 2013 study, an amount that conservationists say threatens the survival of many shark species.
Sharks are slow-growing and slow to reproduce, and the market for their body parts — especially fins and gill plates — are driving overfishing.
Sharks are hunted for their meat, skin, liver oil and cartilage, with shark fin soup often consumed at prestigious banquets in China, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Thirteen species of devil rays, thresher sharks and the silky shark, populations of which have been in free-fall, won tougher protection when they were elevated into Appendix II of CITES, meaning they can be traded only under strict conditions.
“The demand particularly for fins, for meat and gill plates is higher than ever,” warned Andy Cornish, an expert on sharks at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
“Many countries have no management whatsoever for sharks — anybody can take whatever they want.
“Even in some countries that have regulations, they are not well enforced, and as a result, 25 percent of sharks and rays and their relatives are threatened with extinction.”
Fins are the most valuable part of sharks, with shark fin soup often consumed at prestigious banquets in China, Hong Kong and Singapore.
“Finning” — slicing off shark fins while they are alive and tossing them back into the water to die — has been banned by many regional fishing bodies, but still occurs in parts of south-east Asia.
In a high-profile attempt to curb consumption, China recently outlawed fin soup at state functions.
According to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), sales of shark and ray meat rose 40 percent in the decade to 2011.
“The global trade in shark and ray parts and products is nearing $1 billion in annual value,” said Amie Brautigan, WCS’s sharks and rays expert.
In 2003, basking sharks and whale sharks were the first sharks put onto appendix II, and following the last CITES meeting in 2013, a total of eight species of sharks and all manta rays were included.
Rallying behind the need for more protection is South African shark attack survivor Achmat Hassiem.
Ten years ago, Hassiem, a lifeguard, lost half his leg when a great white shark attacked him in the sea off Cape Town.
He has since become a Paralympian swimmer — and an advocate for conservation.
“I think movies that portray sharks as man-eating monsters do a huge disservice to sharks,” the 34-year-old said.
“As top predators in the oceans, they play a crucial role in the food chain. Without them, there is an imbalance that funnels right down to the coral.”