The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) launched a new, visual identification tool to enable trade inspectors and customs officials to quickly identify and seize illegally obtained or traded shark products. The resource is being made available to all CITES governments as they gather for the meeting of the Convention’s Standing Committee in Lyon, France from March 7-11.

The tool consists of three online guides to support the accurate identification of whole animals, shark trunks (bodies with head and fins removed) to be consumed as meat, and dried products such as shark fins, sawfish rostra, and manta and devil ray gill plates—all products that are frequently traded illegally. It combines decades of previous work on species-specific guides, simplifying the training process for customs officials by covering all CITES-listed shark and ray species, and the major products in trade in one tool.

The guides will be crucial in helping customs departments in shark and ray catching and trading countries identify products from protected and regulated CITES-listed species that are often hidden in shipments of unlisted species.

Luke Warwick, WCS Director of Shark Conservation said: “These guides aid the implementation of CITES in its crucial aim of preventing unsustainable trade driving sharks and rays to extinction, in the face of continued declines in these ancient predators populations.”

The trade in shark and ray parts is valued at one billion dollars annually, but until recently it has been poorly regulated, driving these slow growing important ocean predators towards extinction. Over the last decade, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has listed an increasing number of threatened and potentially threatened shark and ray species in the Appendices of this international treaty to combat the threat of this trade.

For the listed species, these CITES obligations mean that governments or parties to the convention must assess that sharks and rays have been legally and sustainably caught before trade can be permitted. Customs officials then inspect exports and imports, checking that all CITES-listed sharks and rays have the correct CITES paperwork that reflects these sustainability assessments from exporting countries.

Dr. Rima Jabado, Founder, Elasmo Project and Chair, IUCN SSC Shark Specialist Group, said: “The implementation of CITES trade controls has been hampered by challenges in the identification of species and their products. We have now consolidated the most up-to-date available information on each CITES-listed species, taking into account recent taxonomic updates, and have developed easy to use guides that will support fisheries and trade inspectors in implementing their countries’ CITES regulations and obligations.”

Trainings for the guides have already been conducted in Mozambique and Colombia, with additional work planned for a range of countries, including Bangladesh and Madagascar in the coming months, to ensure these countries can effectively inspect shipments and fully enforce the CITES shark and ray listings.

Dr. Joanna Murray, Senior Marine Scientist at Cefas (Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science), said: “Cefas, with the support of the UK’s Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra), are very proud to be part of this global collaboration, to use our scientific leadership and experience to bring people together to create the new shark and ray trunk guide to meet the needs of exporters and customs officials in Indonesia. They are already being used to help identify CITES-listed shark and ray species to tackle their illegal trade and protect these vulnerable animals. Thank you to all of the partners and guide authors who have contributed to their development.”

The three-part identification tool is available in English for download at no cost, with additional languages to be added in the coming months.