The top predators are in dire need of protection, according to conservationists, who say the fact 100 million sharks are killed every year poses a threat to the survival of some species.
The status of four types of shark is to be voted on at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference, which is under way in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Delegates are expected to decide whether to increase protection for the silky shark and three species of thresher shark on Sunday.
A yes vote would mean the sharks were protected under the CITES appendix II, which bans all trade in parts except under stringent conditions.
A coalition of conservation organisations which is working to secure the listing also wants to see several types of devil ray, a sister species to sharks, protected.
The group tweeted that they are calling for “science-based limits on catch and exports” to ensure sustainability.
They said shark and ray species were currently being traded “at levels that far exceed what can be sustainably sourced”.
Sharks are slow-growing and slow to reproduce, leaving them particularly vulnerable to overfishing. There is a large market for their fins, which are eaten as a delicacy in some Asian countries.
Shark meat, skin, liver oil and cartilage can also be sold for human consumption, and the animals are often accidentally caught by industrial longline fishing.
Meanwhile, conservation groups say mobula rays are an easy target for fishermen because they are “slow-moving ... and often predictable”.
Ray gill plates are used in traditional Chinese medicine, making them a valuable commodity.
Andy Cornish, an expert on sharks and rays at conservation group WWF, said the demand for fins, meat and gill plates in particular “is higher than ever”.
“Many countries have no management whatsoever for sharks – anybody can take whatever they want,” he told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“Even in some countries that have regulations, they are not well enforced, and as a result, 25 per cent of sharks and rays and their relatives are threatened with extinction.”
Fiji, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, which rely on marine life for tourism, are leading proposals to have 13 threatened species of shark and rays given stronger CITES protection. South Africa is also expected to vote in favour of increased protection.
“Sharks are a vital ecological part of the ocean fabric and rays are keystone species, so we need to protect them,” Dan Ashe, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Services, told AFP.
“Silky sharks, thresher sharks and the devil rays are being unsustainably harvested.”
According to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), sales of shark and ray meat rose 40 per cent in the decade to 2011.
“The global trade in shark and ray parts and products is nearing $1 billion in annual value,” said Amie Brautigan, a WCS expert on sharks and rays.
Basking sharks and whale sharks were the first sharks given protection under CITES appendix II in 2003. All manta rays and some other shark species were added at the last CITES meeting in 2013.
At this conference, sharks have an unlikely advocate in South African paralympic swimmer and shark attack survivor Achmat Hassiem.
The world’s best shark diving locations
The world’s best shark diving locations
There are many shark species which can be sighted off the coast of Australia, including great white sharks, grey nurse sharks and reef sharks, but Ningaloo Reef on the western side of the country offers the chance for you to get in the water with the world’s biggest fish, the whaleshark (pictured). From April to July, these massive creatures can be reliably found near the surface, gulping down huge mouthfuls of microscopic food, and this is when you can snorkel with the behemoths.
2/10 Great Britain
The good old UK has its own world-class shark encounter, and not just any shark, but the second-largest in the world - and best of all, you don’t even have to be a diver to see them! In the summer months, huge basking sharks (pictured) appear off the coast of Cornwall and around the Isle of Man, feeding on plankton at the surface, offering a close encounter to snorkellers.
Mexico has several shark-diving spots up its sleeve. Guadalupe Island, which sits 150 miles west of the Baja Peninsula in the Pacific Ocean, is considered the ultimate location to cage-dive with great white sharks (pictured), blessed as it is with clear blue waters and plentiful food sources. On the other side of the country, in the waters off Playa del Carmen in Cancun, you can dive with migrating female bull sharks between November and March.
4/10 The Bahamas
The Bahamas is known as the shark-diving capital of the world, mainly due to the fact that Caribbean reef sharks (pictured) can be regularly sighted in the deep waters off the scattered islands, but more recently two specific areas have become a Mecca for shark divers. Tiger Beach, off the west coast of Grand Bahama, is a prime site all year round for - you guessed it - tiger sharks, which cruise in the shallow waters over an immense sandbank and will come extremely close to divers, while off Bimini, a similar sandbank is home to immense great hammerhead sharks in February.
The Egyptian Red Sea is home to several species of shark, including grey reef, scalloped hammerhead, silvertip and even the odd whaleshark or tiger, but one of its most-majestic inhabitants is the oceanic whitetip (pictured). This highly distinctive shark, with its vast, rounded pectoral fins resembling airplane wings, can often be sighted off the offshore marine park islands of The Brothers, Daedalous and Elphinstone in the winter months, though they have been seen all year round.
6/10 South Africa
Mention ‘South Africa’ and ‘sharks’ and people immediately think ‘great white sharks’, but this country offers far more than just the opportunity to cage-dive with the ultimate apex predator off Dyer Island and Geyser Rock near Gansbaai. You can also get in among packs of blacktip sharks (pictured) and ragged tooth sharks off the KwaZulu-Natal coast on the eastern side of the continent, and of course, from May to July, this is a prime location to sample the Sardine Run, when billions of sardines migrate northwards and attract hundreds of sharks, not to mention whales, dolphins and other predators
Bull sharks (pictured) are one of the most-feared of all shark species, mainly because they prey in the shallows, around estuaries and even miles upstream in rivers, which means they are more likely to come into contact with humans. However, off Santa Lucia on Cuba’s northeastern shore, between August and February, divers can view these awesome predators at close range, as a local dive centre routinely hand-feeds them with scraps of fish.
8/10 Canary Islands, Spain
The Canary Islands, a sun-and-sand tourist hotspot, might seem an unlikely place for shark diving, but there is a species of shark that resides in these waters. The angel shark (pictured) is a placid, bottom-dwelling animal that closely resembles a ray at first glance. Growing up to two-and-a-half metres in length, they are hard to spot, often lying camouflaged on the seabed.
9/10 Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
The world-famous Galapagos Islands, an archipelago of volcanic islands sitting astride the Equator some 575 miles from the Ecuador coastline, have been in the top five best dive destinations on the planet ever since liveaboards started visiting here. Divers can expect up close and personal encounters with scalloped hammerhead sharks (pictured), Galapagos sharks, and even mighty whalesharks.
10/10 Cocos Islands, Costa Rica
The remote Cocos Islands - they lie some 340 miles off the coast of Costa Rica - are a magnet for divers seeking some serious shark action. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, Cocos boasts various species of shark in its waters, but is most renowned for its massive shoals of scalloped hammerheads and whitetip reef sharks (pictured).
Ten years ago, Mr Hassiem, a lifeguard, lost half his leg when a great white shark attacked him in the sea off Cape Town.
“I think movies that portray sharks as man-eating monsters do a huge disservice to sharks,” the 34-year-old told AFP.
“As top predators in the oceans, they play a crucial role in the food chain. Without them, there is an imbalance that funnels right down to the coral.”
A vote in favour of protected status would add the new shark and ray species to a list of 21,000 animals already protected under CITES appendix II. Countries then would be forced to regulate shark fishing and issue export permits for shark parts.Reuse content