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Science & Space

UN body protects monster-sized sharks

By Michelle Pinch

Whale shark takes a look at research divers off the coast of Belize.
Whale shark takes a look at research divers off the coast of Belize.

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(CNN) -- The two largest fish in the world will now enjoy international protection, thanks to a last-minute vote from a United Nations group that monitors trade of endangered species.

The U.N. plan will safeguard whale and basking sharks, gentile giants that can grow as large as trucks and feed on microscopic plankton.

Delegates at the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) adopted the proposal in the final hours of their meeting in Chile earlier this month.

Only two days before, a similar measure had been narrowly defeated, two votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to place it under the watchful eyes of the U.N. animal protection organization.

The decision marked the first time that CITES has broadened its reach to include a shark species on its protected list. CITES representatives meet every two years to revise the international treaty.

The whale shark can reach a length of 60 feet (18 meters), about the size of an 18-wheeler truck. The basking share is slightly smaller.

But unlike other sharks, the giants are docile filter feeders; deep within their throat are numerous long slender structures called gill rakers that filter food from the water.

They reach their extraordinary size through a diet mostly of microscopic plankton.

The sharks' population has declined in recent years, the result of their growing commercial value. Whale shark meat is still in demand, primarily in Thailand, while basking sharks are hunted primarily for their fins.

The giant fins, approximately 6.5 feet (2 meters) long, supply the East Asian market with shark fin soup, a delicacy priced at around $100 a bowl in Hong Kong.

Animal rights organizations over the years have protested the "finning" method.

Fishermen cap off the dorsal fins when the shark surfaces, saving them from having to dock the giants or using hold space to store them. The sharks, either dead or near death, are abandoned at the site.

The United States recently followed the lead of several European and Central American countries and banned finning within U.S. territorial waters.

One shark specialist said the reason for the sudden shift by the delegates was difficult to determine since they cast their votes by secret ballot.

"Perhaps we managed to clear up some misinformation, particularly which stemmed from certain countries opposing all trade in marine animals," said Sonja Fordham of the Ocean Conservancy.

"The Philippines, India, and the UK illustrated the cost benefits of eco-tourism over unsustainable harvests. They argued that the fish are worth more alive than dead," she said.

The opposing countries, Norway, Japan, Iceland and Singapore, openly protested, fearing a spillover effect into their whaling or tuna industries.

Nevertheless, the final CITES ruling did not establish complete protection for the sharks.

The measure only "requires countries to take the necessary steps to prove that their trade isn't posing a detriment to the species," Fordham said.

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