When talking about marine animal conservation, sharks are often left out of the conversation in favor of the two major mammals of the sea – whales and dolphins. However, like these two animals, sharks are critically important to the health of marine ecosystems and it seems that they are finally getting some of the attention they deserve.

Colombia in particular is amping up their legal protection of sharks. During a video presentation at The Economist’s World Ocean Summit this month, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that his country will be expanding existing legal protections of sharks and plans to stop both the import and export of sharks and shark parts.

What great news!

As with most marine animals, sharks face a bleak future due to the threats of both targeted and incidental overfishing, habitat loss and climate change. Sharks are also the main target of the cruel shark fin trade which supplies their fins for use in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup.

Boris Worm, leading shark researcher and marine ecologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia told NPR that at least 100 million sharks are caught every year.

“That’s 11,000 each hour, every day, 365 days a year,” he said.

A large number of these animals die a slow, painful death, especially if caught for the shark fin trade, for which they often have their fins cut off while still conscious and are then thrown back into the water, bleeding profusely.

Colombia has taken a leading role in shark conservation in recent years, realizing how important these animals are to maintaining oceanic environments.

“Because they are at the top of the marine food chain, sharks play a leading role in the health of our oceans,” stated Environment Minister Luz Helena Sarmiento via Arbiter News. “These legendary organisms are seriously threatened, and only through measures like this will we be able to unite our efforts with those of other countries in order to protect [these] species that not only belong to Colombia but the rest of the world.”

According to Pew Charitable Trusts, Colombia secured protection for five shark species back in March 2013 under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which will ensure “that international trade is sustainable and legal.”

The regulations will take effect this year in September for endangered scalloped and great hammerheads and vulnerable smooth hammerheads, oceanic whitetips and porbeagles.

Last year in October, Colombia also signed the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Migratory Sharks, setting up protections for four migratory shark species including mako and whale sharks. Colombia became the third Latin American country to do so, following Costa Rica and Chile.

Additionally, according to Arbiter News, Colombia has “recently banned commercial shark fishing from its waters, as well as the practice of removing fins and returning the live shark to sea.”

With Colombia’s new legal protection expansion announcement, there is still hope that these magnificent sea beings will thrive in oceans for years to come. Now, let’s urge other countries to offer them strong protections, too!

Image source: Stephane Bailliez / Flickr