A bid to protect shark species at risk from overfishing has won the backing of a majority of countries at a meeting on the global wildlife trade.
Governments have voted in favour of proposals to list five species - oceanic whitetip, scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead, smooth hammerhead and porbeagle sharks - under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).
If the move is adopted by a final plenary session of the Cites meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, this week, it will mean that the sharks will be listed as "Appendix II" species, with strict measures to regulate the international trade in them to make sure it is sustainable.
Conservationists welcomed the vote in favour of protecting the sharks, which they say are particularly vulnerable to overfishing.
They estimate that almost 100 million sharks are caught every year, targeted largely for their fins for use in shark fin soup which is a delicacy in Asia. But as species which are slow growing and slow to reproduce, they are vulnerable to overfishing.
Although some regions, including the European Union, have banned shark finning, commercial fishing for fins, meat, liver oil, cartilage and other body parts is largely unregulated in much of the world, conservationists warn. Some countries have been reluctant to include marine species, which can generate large revenues, in the treaty that regulates or bans international trade in wildlife. The shark fin business is worth an estimated £320 million a year.
Wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic's marine programme leader Glenn Sant said: "Today's outcome could be a turning point in how Cites can assist in the regulation of trade in marine species. If accepted in the plenary, this meeting will go down in history as the one where Cites finally realised its marine potential." He added: "It's a bittersweet day for sharks. While their adoption on Cites is warmly welcomed, it's a sad indictment that their populations have fallen to such a low level that such measures have become necessary."
Traffic said some populations of the sharks being discussed at the Cites meeting, including the ocean whitetip shark, have declined by more than 90%.
Sonja Fordham, of Shark Advocates International, said: "We are delighted by the outcome of today's votes for listing several species of sharks under Cites, and hopeful that these historic decisions will be upheld in plenary later this week. These highly traded, threatened shark species urgently need protection from the unsustainable trade that jeopardises populations, ecosystems, livelihoods and ecotourism."
Previous bids to protect several species including porbeagles failed at Cites, and conservationists said they would keep up the pressure on governments to ensure the proposals are upheld in the plenary session later this week. The votes on the sharks all gained the two-thirds majority needed to approve the move to regulate their trade. If the move is approved at the plenary session, governments will have 18 months to implement measures to regulate the trade.