More than 60 countries agreed to ban the killing of sharks for their fins in the Atlantic Ocean, a move that conservationists hope will increase protection of threatened species around the world.
The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) drew up the agreement at its annual meeting held in New Orleans on Sunday. The group, which oversees management of many Atlantic fish species, acted on a proposal by the US.
The agreement bans the practice known as shark finning in which fishermen slice off a shark's fin and throw the carcass overboard, leaving room for more fins. Shark fins are a delicacy in Asian countries and command high prices: Shark fin soup sells for more than US$100 in Singapore, according to WildAid, an environmental group.
"This is the first international finning ban in the world, so it is quite a significant conservation step forward and the environmental community is most grateful for the United States' leadership," said Sonja Fordham, a shark conservation specialist with The Ocean Conservancy.
ICCAT, which includes 63 nations, also agreed to collect more data on shark catches and identify nursery areas.
The US had called for a reduction of the number of fishing vessels that hunt sharks, but ICCAT left that unchanged.
According to the UN, more than 100 million sharks are killed each year. A study last year by Dalhousie University marine scientists estimated that 90 percent of the world's large fish -- including sharks -- have disappeared since 1950.
"Sharks are exceptionally slow growing, and they take many decades to recover once they're depleted. They warrant extra cautious management," Fordham said.
There are few international restrictions on shark fishing and trade. The US banned shark finning in the Atlantic in 1993 and in the Pacific Ocean in 2002.
ICCAT has a good track record in management, said Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She pointed out that it took only four years for the North Atlantic swordfish population to rebound thanks to quotas imposed by ICCAT in 1999.
Officials and conservationists plan to put pressure on organizations that manage other regions of the world to impose similar measures.
Fordham said South Korea was the only country to resist the ban on shark finning and that it has six months to consider whether it will sign the agreement.