Regulating Shark & Ray Fisheries
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Sharks have ruled the seas for millennia, but today the tables have turned. Nearly 200 species of sharks and their close cousins, the skates and rays, are currently threatened with extinction. Relentless fishing pressure for shark fins, meat, and other products is driving serious declines in their populations throughout the world’s oceans that could also threaten the balance of marine ecosystems.
Sharks and rays are highly sensitive to overfishing. Despite this vulnerability, most shark and ray fisheries are unregulated and very few are subject to strict fishing limits. Saving these fish will require action at many levels, including the adoption of measures to ensure that international trade in their fins, meat, skin, ray gill rakers, and other parts and products is sustainable.
Sharks and rays are targeted in commercial and recreational fisheries and taken as “bycatch” in fisheries targeting other species like tuna and swordfish. Shark meat is an important source of protein in many coastal communities; however, unsustainable demand for their fins to make shark fin soup, a celebratory dish in some Asian cuisines, is driving the exploitation of these vulnerable fishes. In the wasteful practice of finning, fishermen cut off the fins of sharks and dump their carcasses back into the ocean.
Shark and ray fisheries have expanded in size and number around the world since the mid-1980s. As a result, 181 species are currently threatened with extinction and listed on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species. Among them are hammerheads, oceanic whitetip, and porbeagle sharks, sawfishes, and manta rays. Research supported by WCS estimates that 26 to 73 million sharks are killed annually in the shark fin soup trade. The commercial catch of rays is even larger. Giant manta and reef manta rays, for example, are sought for their gill rakers, which are used to make an increasingly popular Asian health tonic.
The biology of cartilaginous fishes is what makes them particularly vulnerable to overfishing. Unlike most bony fishes that mature quickly and lay millions of eggs at a time, sharks and rays bear relatively few young, and many give birth to live pups. They also mature quite slowly. For example, female porbeagle sharks, which can live up to 65 years, do not produce offspring until 13–18 years of age. On average, they have just four pups at a time. Mantas reach maturity at 8–10 years of age and then give birth to a single live pup every two to three years. As a result, populations of these species grow slowly and cannot recover easily from overfishing.
- Assess status of shark and ray populations, nature and impact of threats, and extent of fisheries and trade through research and monitoring across priority seascapes.
- Promote effective domestic and international fisheries management and sustainable trade policies based on scientific advice.
- Establish marine protected areas to safeguard key habitats for threatened sharks and rays, including sites critical to the species’ reproduction, migratory pathways, feeding, and growth.
- Work with nearshore and coastal artisanal fleets to ensure shark fisheries are sustainable by implementing science-based catch limits and other management tools.
- Build capacity of resource managers and others to oversee and participate in conservation efforts for sharks and rays.
- Raise public awareness about the plight of sharks in fishing communities and amongst nations that can affect change through strategic outreach and education programs.
What WCS is Doing
WCS is working with a coalition of organizations, including the German Elasmobranch Association, Humane Society International, Project Aware, Shark Advocates International, and Shark Trust, to advocate for regulation of commercial trade in shark and ray parts and products through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). About 150 of 178 member governments are meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, this March and will vote whether to list the oceanic whitetip shark, three hammerhead species, porbeagle shark, two manta rays, and the freshwater sawfish on CITES to ensure trade in their parts is legal, sustainable, and transparent. These efforts are part of a broader shark and ray conservation strategy, which includes field research around the world, threat mitigation, promotion of effective fisheries management and trade policies, capacity-building, and public education.
WCS works in several countries with major shark-fishing industries, including Indonesia, Argentina, Madagascar, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Thailand, and Brazil. Currently, we are focusing efforts on the Western Caribbean, where we have worked for decades on marine conservation and management and are implementing a model for conservation of reef-associated sharks and rays developed for the region. Current and forthcoming shark conservation efforts will also target the Indo-Pacific, the Western Indian Ocean, the Eastern Tropical Atlantic, and the Northwest Atlantic.
At WCS’s New York Aquarium, we are building on our educational and outreach initiatives to help create a new constituency in support of shark and ray conservation. The aquarium’s forthcoming “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” exhibit will celebrate the oceans and marine life, educate future conservationists, and advance WCS efforts to protect seascapes in New York and across the globe.
From the Newsroom
Ray populations in Indonesia face serious threats from overfishing, but recently the government has taken action to ensure their future.
As overfishing pushes more and more shark and ray species to the brink, WCS is increasing its commitment to the conservation of these fish and their relatives over the next 10 years.
Proposals to protect five species of sharks, freshwater sawfish, and two manta ray species have been accepted by CITES. These protections are critical to ensuring that international trade does not threaten the survival of commercially valuable shark and ray species.
During the 2012 IUCN World Conservation Congress in Jeju, Korea, WCS urges government entities to protect sharks and rays from overfishing. WCS advocates improved management of fisheries, limits on catches of certain species, and increased CITES protections.
John Calvelli, WCS Executive VP for Public Affairs, discusses threats to global shark populations and the devastating legacy of Jaws. As demand for shark fin soup grows, Calvelli emphasizes that efforts to conserve vulnerable shark species must incorporate a curb on the trade of their fins.