Conservationists hope endangered rays will be able to fight back from the brink of extinction after a global agreement, which restricts the sale of their valuable fins, was struck.
Any trade of guitarfishes and wedge fishes – which are known collectively as ‘rhino rays’ and are both found in the Arabian Gulf – will only be allowed if it is shown not to threaten their future.
Experts said the move, agreed at a summit in Geneva last week, could be the first step in reversing a steep decline in the animals’ numbers. However, they said regulators across the globe would have to be prepared to ensure the new rules are tightly enforced.
Rhino ray populations have plummeted largely because of demand for their fins, which are mainly used in soup and can fetch close $1,000 (Dh3,670) per kilogram when dried.
Shark-fin soup is popular in China and other parts of the Far East, where it is often served at weddings and is seen as a sign of the hosts’ wealth. The gelatinous filling in the animals' snouts is also considered a delicacy.
“It’s a first step,” said Rima Jabado, a researcher who founded the Elasmo Project in Dubai, which promotes research and conservation of sharks and rays in the Arabian Gulf. She was in Geneva to help lobby for the new rules. “It means that we can now try to make sure any trade is legal," she said.
“There are species of rhino rays we are very concerned about because we know no one is seeing them or they are seeing them very, very rarely. For other species, we have seen large declines, but they are still around. So it is not too late for them, at least.
“We have put them on the agenda. We now need countries with them within their waters to take action.
“I feel it would be such a shame to see another species disappear within such a short span of time because of us. We are seeing so many species disappearing because of human greed.”
In the UAE, fishing for rhino rays or keeping ones that were accidentally caught was made illegal this year, but conservationists are concerned that few other countries are taking the issue as seriously.
Last week, at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in Geneva – or Cites – 78 per cent of countries voted in favour of adding rhino rays to Appendix II of the convention. It means that, for any trade in rhino rays to take place, countries must regulate exports and show that trade is sustainable and legal.
It followed the previously little-known rhino rays making global headlines last year when they were named by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as the world’s most threatened marine fish, replacing sawfishes.
All but one of the 16 warm-water, shark-like subspecies are classified as critically endangered mostly because of overfishing for their meat and fins.
Both sawfishes and wedge fishes live inshore, in warm seas and can grow to more than three metres in length. They are fished the Red Sea, the Indo-Malay Archipelago, along the Indian coast and off most of Africa. Like many other rays and sharks, they have relatively low reproductive rates, something which leaves them especially susceptible to overfishing.
Nine out of 10 species of wedgefish, and all six species of guitarfish, are officially listed as critically endangered. It is feared that two species of wedgefish may already have been wiped out.
Meanwhile, mako sharks – the world’s fastest shark, which can reach speeds of up to around 70kph – were also added to the same list of protected species. The mako has also been affected by the booming demand for shark-fin soup.
The sharks were added with the support of 72 per cent of 147 voting counties, just above the two-thirds threshold required.
Andy Cornish, Global Shark Programme Leader at WWF Hong Kong, said it was vital the agreements were enforced.
“With these rays now listed by Cites, we are urging all range states to act to fully protect these highly threatened species as quickly as possible, unless countries are already in a position to prove that their fisheries are sustainable,” Mr Cornish said.
“We can’t risk pushing them further towards extinction before acting.”