UNITED NATIONS -- Mexico announced here plans yesterday to ban shark and stingray fishing starting next year, creating what would be the largest initiative by one nation to protect shark species.
The temporary moratorium is part of a burgeoning global movement against the trade of shark fins used as an ingredient in an Asian delicacy. Mexican authorities said they were inspired by the "shark sanctuary" declared two years ago by Pacific nation of Palau.
"Mexico wishes to share with the international community our intention to declare next year a moratorium on shark and stingray fishing," said Yanerit Morgan, Mexico's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations on the side of a General Assembly meeting yesterday.
Joined by leaders of a small-island nations and other Latin American states, Morgan said the fishing ban would encompass Mexico's territorial seas and expansive exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Pacific Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.
The goal, she said, was to protect "pregnant female specimen and newborns of the main shark and stingray species."
Rising affluence in China and parts of East Asia is fueling a boom in the consumption of shark fin soup, a mostly flavorless dish prized for its texture and as a status symbol.
Conservationists estimate that about 73 million sharks are slaughtered each year mainly for acquiring their fins, and they fear that the uncontrolled and illegal fishing of sharks will drive 30 percent of shark species to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's classification of threatened or near threatened with extinction.
"I think that's a tremendous development," said Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation at the Pew Environment Group. "Mexico is a big fishing nation, it's a very important nation globally, and that's a tremendous statement that was made."
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicated it had not heard of the announcement but welcomed it and said it is keen to study Mexico's plans in more detail.
"We're interested in learning more about Mexico's measures and how they will help protect shark and other populations in Mexican waters," NOAA spokeswoman Monica Allen said in an email. "The U.S. is supportive of countries trying to put forward shark conservation measures."
There are currently about five national shark sanctuaries. And more are on the way.
A representative from the Federated States of Micronesia said his nation would likely announce a new shark sanctuary soon. Palau was the first state to establish a sanctuary when President Johnson Toribiong declared his nation's seas and EEZ off-limits to shark fishing.
The Maldives in the Indian Ocean has since followed suit, along with the Marshall Islands. Representatives of Honduras and Colombia were also present when Mexico made its announcement, and those two states say they are pursuing similar initiatives, including a possible protective corridor for sharks stretching from Colombia's Pacific coast to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador.
Small-island state representatives admit that enforcement is a serious problem but said they are receiving assistance from the United States, Australia and Japan.
Vessels from China, Taiwan, Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia routinely intrude illegally into the waters of South Pacific island nations to poach for sharks and other fish.
"Enforcement of marine protection laws is a challenge," Toribiong said, noting that his nation now has only one patrol boat tasked with monitoring a vast swath of ocean. But he added, "I think we can get there."
The shark sanctuary movement is also creeping into the United States.
California recently announced a ban on shark fin sales, Pew's Rand said, and it has being followed by Washington state, Oregon, Hawaii and the U.S. territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
"You're seeing a ripple effect," he said. "This momentum is building quite quickly."
Concerned about the decimation of sharks for the shark fin trade, the United States also has strict conservation rules in place, though not an outright moratorium that Mexico plans to institute next year.
NOAA prohibits the retention of 19 separate shark species and has quotas on the fishing of others. The agency also employs restrictions on gear and on how long vessels can fish in certain areas. The shark fishery is also closely monitored, and no shark can be legally landed without its fin naturally attached. Shark fin hunters are notorious for slicking the fins off the shark and tossing the rest of the animal back in the ocean to die.
Morgan at the Mexican U.N. mission said her country's decision to establish a moratorium is strictly a domestic initiative and not part of a regional North American or Latin American conservation effort.
"Our decision is a national policy," Morgan said. "We hope that others can join us."