By Matt McGrath
Environment correspondent, BBC News
All trade in five named species of sharks is to be regulated from now on, in a significant step forward for conservation.
Without a permit confirming that these sharks have been harvested legally and sustainably, the sale of their meat or fins will be banned.
The regulation was agreed last year at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Thailand.
The rules also apply to manta rays.
Shark numbers have been under severe pressure in recent years as the numbers killed for their fins soared.
Scientific estimates put the number at about 100m a year, with demand driven by the fin soup trade in Hong Kong and China.
Campaigners have been seeking to stop the unregulated trade in sharks since the 1990s but it was only at the Cites meeting in Bangkok last year that they finally managed to achieve sufficient votes to drive through the ban.
From Sunday, the oceanic whitetip, the porbeagle and three varieties of hammerhead will be elevated to Appendix II of the Cites code, which means that traders must have permits and certificates.
Manta rays, valued for their gills which are used in Chinese medicine, will also be protected.
The survival of all these species has been threatened by over fishing.
Tangible protectionThe move is seen as the most significant move in the 40 year history of Cites to protect these species.
"Regulating international trade in these shark and manta ray species is critical to their survival and is a very tangible way of helping to protect the biodiversity of our oceans," said Cites Secretary General John Scanlon.
"The practical implementation of these listings will involve issues such as determining sustainable export levels, verifying legality, and identifying the fins, gills and meat that are in trade. This may seem challenging, but by working together we can do it and we will do it."
Under the regulations, all trade in these sharks and rays across 180 countries will not be allowed unless they have been authorised by the designated national authorities.
Trade in shark fins has already declined significantly as a result of campaigns to raise awareness. Recently it's been reported that sales have gone down by 70%.
Earlier this year the hotel chain, Hilton Worldwide stopped serving shark fin at its 96 owned and managed Asia-Pacific properties.
However several countries have entered reservations to the Cites regulations on some of these species.
Denmark (on behalf of Greenland), Canada, Guyana, Japan, Iceland and Yemen have all said they will not be bound by the new rules and will continue to fish for some or all of these species.
Under the regulations though, they are only able to trade with other countries that have also registered a reservation.
Officials from Cites point out that for such a controversial issue, the number of countries registering reservations is small. The point to the fact that China, the main consumer market, has not done so.
Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.
By James Wright, SeaFood Business senior editor
10 September, 2012 - The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has tightened international trade regulations for porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus) and scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini).
The restrictions, requested for porbeagle shark by several European Union member states and for scalloped hammerheads by Costa Rica, go into effect on 25 September, 90 days after the initial request date.
According to a letter to constituents written by Angela Somma, chief of the endangered species division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, both species are now listed in Appendix III. This gives the species a special protection among CITES membership countries, or parties, that control and monitor the international trade of that species. Any CITES party may add a native species under domestic law to Appendix III unilaterally.
Under the new shark trade restrictions, porbeagle shark and scalloped hammerhead shark must have a CITES certificate of origin issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for any shipments entering or leaving the United States. Shipments must be declared and receive clearance prior to release by U.S. Customs and Border Protection upon import or prior to export.
Hammerhead sharks, in particular, are highly sought after as the main ingredient in shark fin soup, a dish with cultural significance in Asia but one that is attracting intense scrutiny from environmental organizations. The dish is known to command extravagantly high prices, as much as USD 100 per bowl. Traditionally served at important ceremonies like weddings, it has become a symbol of status, health and prosperity that is increasingly common at high-profile business events.
Pressure from environmental groups and celebrities has altered both government and shark-sourcing policies for businesses around the world.
Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Singapore supermarket chain Cold Storage and Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Ltd. (parent company of The Peninsula Hotels) have all stopped selling or serving shark fin soup, as have cargo carriers and passenger airlines.
According to a Chinese state media report earlier this summer, China was considering a temporary ban on shark fin soup at official banquets. At the recently concluded Seafood Summit, hosted by SeaWeb in Hong Kong, former National Basketball Association star Yao Ming, who played for the Houston Rockets, was recently named a Seafood Champion for his work in raising awareness about finning throughout China.
Finning is an illegal but reportedly common practice in which shark fins are lopped off the animals at sea while the rest of the body — about 95 percent of its total weight — is tossed overboard. Some groups estimate that 73 million of the fish, known as an apex predator for its crucial role in the ocean ecosystem, are rendered helpless and left to die.
U.S. laws prevent the landing of shark fins without the carcasses attached; several U.S. states have passed or have introduced legislature banning the trade of shark fins. For more about recent measures to curtail shark finning, look for the Going Green feature in the October issue of SeaFood Business.