THE tide is turning for shark conservation around the world.
After the landmark vote at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) conservation meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, to regulate the trade of shark species that have been threatened, there is hope that the world's oldest predator won't suffer the fate of animals going on the list of extinct species.
That is if countries that voted yes defy the political lobby when the meeting returns to plenary later this week
Killed for their fins to make expensive delicacies in Asia, shark populations have dwindled in recent years. Scientists estimate that about 100 million sharks are killed every year.
The Pew Environment Group, which has been campaigning with the Coral Reef Alliance in Fiji's coastal villages and islands, hailed the vote as "historic".
"Governments are now listening to the science and acting in the interests of sustainability," said Elizabeth Wilson, manager of Pew's global shark campaign.
"With these new protections, they will have the chance to recover and once again fulfil their role as top predators."
Those fishing for fins of oceanic whitetip and three species of hammerhead shark, which are the main target in Fiji's 1.2-square-kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone, will now require strictly controlled permits to export the fins.
It's the same with the porbeagle shark, which is targeted for their meat in Europe.
These five species of the 450 known species, one-third of which are endangered by overfishing, are the most valuable and sought after in Hong Kong, the hub of the shark fin trade.
According to Pew, about 50 per cent of all fins — 10.3 million kilograms of fins — end up there every year from 83 countries, including Fiji.
Spain and Indonesia are the main sources. The other top 10 nations include countries such as Argentina, Nigeria, New Zealand and Iran.
Ministry of Fisheries and Forests statistics show that earnings from shark fin exports from Fiji to Hong Kong pale in comparison to earnings from the shark-diving industry in Fiji.
The annual income from shark fin trading averages $F8million while income generated by the shark-diving industry is at $US42m ($F75m).
That revenue estimate for the shark-diving industry was for 2010 and concluded in a study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science.
While the export price of shark's fin has increased, from $HK377.12 ($F89.57) per kilo in 2001 to $HK678.30 ($F161) in 2011, and the shark-diving industry continues to reap bigger rewards with the growing popularity of Fiji to the world, the sharks are getting smaller and disappearing from some areas.
Marine biologist Vive Daunivesi, of South Seas Subs, said there had been a notable decline in shark populations in the Yasawa and Mamanuca groups.
"Baby sharks used to come around close to shore, at about one metre depth, but we seldom see them now," she said. "There used to be around 50 to 60 babies, now we only see up to 12, and that if we're lucky.
"We had a leopard shark that used to come around South Seas Island but that too has disappeared.
"There was also another that we called Scar because of a scar she spotted, that tourists loved, she is no longer in sight."
Angelo Vilagomez, Pew's shark campaigner who has toured Fiji's islands and visited schools to raise awareness, said from Bangkok that while the votes showed the world was finally taking notice that without sharks the marine ecosystem would collapse, the fight was not over.
"We haven't won yet, though. There is still an opportunity to overturn this vote later this week."
Previous attempts to protect marine species — including these sharks — have failed, largely because of opposition from Japan and China.
The two nations have argued other bodies have responsibility for fisheries, but their opponents, including the European Union, US and Brazil, said CITES is more effective with its power over commercial fishing.
The oceanic whitetip proposal was passed in a secret ballot with 92 votes in favour, 42 against and eight abstentions, while the hammerhead proposal passed with 91 votes in favour and 39 against.
The porbeagle proposal was adopted with 93 votes in favour, 39 against and eight abstentions.
The manta and mobulla rays also got new protection against exports. They were backed by 80 per cent of the voting nations, including Fiji.
After some tense discussion and political lobbying which could have swayed some votes, the EU offered to fund poorer countries to help them change their fishing practices.
Local shark campaigner Manoa Rasigatale said while CITES — which meets every three years to discuss how to best regulate trade in plants and animals to ensure the survival of more than 35,000 species — had finally shown conscience on sharks, there was still work to be done.
"What we've been preaching for the last three years was taken lightly. Now the world is taking the threat seriously and governments are acting," he said.
"Fiji should take a cue from the trend around the world to protect sharks and put in place measures to do that. We should do this on our own conscience instead of waiting for CITES.
"Hats off to our children, they are taking notice and we should encourage them to do all they can to protect the future in our seas."
The CITES meeting, attended by 178 governments, businesses, non-governmental organisations and groups speaking for indigenous peoples, ends on March 14.