A major wildlife conservation body voted to upgrade the status of sharks in a “historic” move to regulate the trade of the critically endangered but commercially valuable species.

Delegates at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Bangkok voted by a two-thirds majority to upgrade the sharks’ status to Appendix II. This means that while the species is not necessarily now threatened with extinction, it “may become so unless trade is closely controlled”.

“It’s a great victory for conservation, but it is a great victory for CITES as well. It is 40 years old, it is a real coming of age,” Dr. Susan Liebermann from Pew Environment Group told the BBC.

The added protection will cover the oceanic whitetip, three varieties of hammerheads and the portbeagle – all of which are said to be highly valued for their fins and seriously threatened by overfishing.

Manta rays, whose gill plates are prized in Chinese traditional medicine, have also been listed on Appendix II, according to CITES.

Upgrading the status of the sharks means that both exporting and importing countries must issue licenses and could be subject to sanctions.

An estimated 100 million sharks are killed by commercial fishing every year, researchers have recently reported, especially in China and Hong Kong where there is a huge appetite for shark fin soup.

Shark conservationists have urged CITES to protect the sharks since 1994 but have faced stark opposition from Japan and China.