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CITES bans international trade in sawfish

Snouts and fins off the menu

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A meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in the Hague has banned the international trade in sawfish - threatened by demand for their attractive snouts, or rostra, and fins.

According to the BBC, the rostra are used as novelty items, in traditional medicine, and (animal lovers look away now) to make cockfighting spurs in Latin America. They go for anything up to $1,500 (£750) a pop and, as Dorothy Nyingi from the National Museums of Kenya told delegates, any Kenyan fisherman lucky enough to catch one might well be able to retire on the proceeds.

This trade has reduced populations of the seven sawfish species to 10 per cent of their historic levels, with the animal now gone "from waters stretching from the east coast of the US to southeast Asia".

The CITES blurb elaborates: "Species of Pristidae are generally tropical marine and estuarine elasmobranchs that have a circumtropical distribution. Their distribution was presumably once continuous in suitable habitat, but is now severely fragmented with many populations extirpated from large parts of their former ranges and with remaining populations seriously depleted."

Accordingly, CITES delegates agreed to add sawfish to its Appendix 1, which "includes species threatened with extinction". CITES explains: Trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances."

Australia managed to get a limited sawfish trade exemption for "allowing live exports for aquaria" of Pristis microdon, the freshwater Largetooth Sawfish, the argument being that sticking the creatures on public display was the best way to educate the public.

Oz's delegate Kerry Smith said: "It's universally recognised that the threat to sawfish comes from the trade in fins and rostra. Northern Australia has robust populations of Pristis microdon occurring in large and remote areas which have not been subject to destructive harvesting."

Greenpeace was having none of it. The organisation's Carroll Muffett said: "Australia is putting the very survival of these magnificent animals at risk to protect an industry worth less than £100,000."

The WWF was generally pleased with the result, although its Sue Lieberman "expressed frustration that delegates had on Friday rejected proposals to protect two other sharks, the porbeagle and spiny dogfish". ®

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