All too often, sharks grab headlines for the wrong reasons: After an attack or when they veer too close to public beaches. In the Middle East, last week, they were getting attention for a much more positive reason. Arab countries have come out in large numbers to support shark conservation and show their support by signing the only global pact dedicated to this cause.

The Memorandum of Understanding on Migratory Sharks (Sharks MOU) is a global instrument under the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). The Convention administered by the United Nations Environment Programme protects species that move across international boundaries and beyond national jurisdictions. Many shark species are highly migratory and they travel the oceans as if it were their own backyards, sometimes even tens of thousands of kilometres searching for food or to breed in warmer waters.

Shark finning has become a major threat to certain species of shark such as the hammerhead, porbeagle and the great white shark and their numbers have plummeted over the last decade. The main threat is shark finning, where the shark is caught and the fin removed and the remainder of the shark is discarded. The wasteful practice of finning is driven by the demand of growing Asian markets, which have a rapacious appetite for the delicacy of shark fin soup. Some estimates have put the price of shark fins as high as $700 (Dh2,575) per kilo. In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species named 64 species, one-third of all oceanic shark species, as being at risk of extinction due to over-fishing and shark finning. Great white sharks were assessed as vulnerable to extinction and there is estimated only to be 3,000 to 4,000 individuals left in the world.

The move by Arab countries will prove quite important for the Sharks MOU. Countries such as the UAE are not major fishers of sharks, but are a major exporter of shark fins coming in from other countries. In total, a further nine countries have signed the MOU — including the UAE, the Comoros, Egypt, Jordan, Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen. The signing took place in Dubai on the sidelines of a joint training workshop on shark conservation, organised by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in collaboration with the UAE Ministry of Environment and Water. Signing the Sharks MOU is a major step forward and complements the work done under the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). We hope joining the Sharks MOU will be a first step and that more Middle Eastern countries will join the CMS soon. CMS has a gap in membership in the Middle East and we would like to invite Oman, the UAE, Kuwait and Iraq to join the convention. Many of these countries such as the UAE are doing a great deal for the conservation of migratory species such as dugongs and birds of prey, but having them as members of the CMS will allow for stronger cooperation between the range states where many of the CMS species migrate.

The Convention’s Conference of the Parties, which will be held in Quito, Ecuador, later this year, is expected to be a closely watched meeting. Several shark species that were placed on the trade restrictions list under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) — such as three species of hammerhead shark and the oceanic white-tip shark — are also expected to be candidates for protection under CMS. One hopes the confidence expressed in international cooperation by joining the Sharks MOU will urge China and other Asian countries such as Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam to join these new members to protect sharks and other migratory species under CMS. Some of these Asian countries are the largest markets for shark fins and one hopes they will also express a similar international commitment to ban the practice of shark finning, just as they have done by condemning the poaching of elephants and rhinos by signing the London Declaration on Illegal Wildlife Trade. China has already made some significant strides by banning shark fin soup at official state functions, but it can do much more if it works with CMS and its parties to reduce the demand for shark products.

For many species like the sharks, time is running out and we need to act before they go extinct. The Arab countries are showing their commitment and we hope this sets a good example for other countries in the world to do the same.

Bradnee Chambers is the executive secretary for the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals of the United Nations Environment Programme.