The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) this week decided not to create any new international trade restrictions to protect five endangered shark species, all of which are highly prized for their use in the Chinese delicacy known as shark fin soup, or, as I call it, "extinction in a bowl."

Shark fin soup is particularly unappetizing dish to conservationists, as shark "finning" remains one of the most controversial hunting or fishing activities in the world. Sharks are caught, their fins are chopped off, and the bodies (which are not prized) are dumped back into the ocean—often alive, where they suffer a horrible death.

The sharks that were denied protection include three endangered hammerhead sharks (scalloped, great and smooth), the oceanic whitetip and the spiny dogfish. The CITES proposal would have added the species to CITES' Appendix II, which places very strict import and export restrictions on species which would be threatened with extinction if trade were not strongly controlled.

"Once again CITES has failed to listen to the scientists," said Glenn Sant, global marine program coordinator for TRAFFIC International, the wildlife trade monitoring network, in a prepared statement. "The decision not to list all of these sharks today is a conservation catastrophe for these species. Populations of these sharks have declined by more than 90 percent in some areas, many of them caught illegally and destined to end up in the shark fin trade. They are targeted because of their high value."

According to a recent report by the marine conservation organization Oceana, Hong Kong imports up to 10 million kilograms of shark fins, representing up to 73 million sharks, every year. The fins, imported by fishermen from 87 different countries, can fetch more than $1,300 each. Shark fin soup, in turn, sells for more than $100 per bowl.

"The international shark fin trade is a multibillion dollar business that is pushing many shark species to the brink of extinction," said Oceana fisheries campaign manager Elizabeth Griffin in a prepared statement. "Hammerhead sharks are primarily caught for their fins. Hammerhead shark fins are among the most commonly traded into the Hong Kong market. These shark species are threatened by the international consumer demand for shark fin soup."

The CITES member nations did agree to add one shark species, the porbeagle shark, to Appendix II. "Porbeagle sharks finally received the trade protections they so desperately needed," said Oceana wildlife scientist Rebecca Greenberg. "Without trade restrictions, these shark species will be pushed towards extinction. The oceans, livelihoods and local economies depend on these species."

An earlier proposal to create more transparency in the shark trade was also shot down last week when Japan and other member nations argued that it would hurt poorer economies.

Image: An NOAA agent counting confiscated shark fins, via Wikipedia