It's a Small World After All
Sharks and rays (known collectively as "Chondrichthyans") have experienced some of the severe population declines of any animals on the planet today! As many as 300 species are now considered threatened with extinction! Whilst there are other threats, the most major driver of these declines is overfishing. Many people immediately point the finger of blame at the Chinese and their shark fin soup, for the bulk of this disaster, but in fact, overfishing of sharks and rays is a global issue. Each nation must assume their share of the damage and target their management plans to aid in improving shark conservation. This does not just involve managing fisheries, but also international trade, responsible shark consumption and protection of endangered species on a global scale. So which countries can do what for shark conservation?
It is estimated that somewhere between 100 and 350 million individual sharks are killed by humans every single year. If it takes you 5 minutes to digest this article, that means that almost 1,000 sharks will have died whilst you were reading! It is difficult to get an exact number because so many sharks caught in fisheries are not reported and their landings are not monitored, but the Food and Agriculture Administration (FAO) reports that between 750,000 and 1,000,000 tonnes of sharks and rays are fished from our oceans annually (Bräutigam et al, 2015). Even without an accurate number it is clear that the scale of their overexploitation is staggering!
Therefore, the first and most obvious step for shark conservation is to make their fisheries sustainable. The majority of shark scientists and experts believe that sustainable shark fisheries are achievable, and that converting current fisheries to be more sustainable should be a conservation priority (Shiffman & Hammerschlag, 2016). To learn more you can read Can Shark Fisheries be Sustainable?.
This would involve extensive data collection for each and every shark fishery to generate a Shark Assessment Report (SAR). This means estimating the shark stock sizes and repopulation potential for each species of shark that is fished, in order to adopt science-based fishing limits. It would also be vital to implement ongoing data collection and mandatory reporting of shark landings. This will ensure that the populations are continually monitored and fisheries can be closed if stock collapse is imminent (Bräutigam et al, 2015).
As sharks are also commonly caught as "bycatch" by fisheries which are targeting other commercially valuable species, it would also be helpful to research which gear types are most destructive and design more modern solutions, which can reduce shark bycatch (Bräutigam et al, 2015).
Scientists assessing how to improve shark conservation on a global scale, have identified many countries where their shark fisheries need some serious attention. These include (but are not limited to) Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Libya, Mozambique, Russia, South Africa, the UK, the USA, and most countries in south-east Asia and South America... (it would actually probably be quicker to list the countries that do not have unsustainable shark fisheries to be honest!). All these countries should immediately prioritise implementing legislation to make their fisheries sustainable (Bräutigam et al, 2015, Dent & Clarke, 2015).
Also included on this list are India, Indonesia and Spain. According to data collected by the FAO, these are the top three shark fishing nations in the world, extracting sharks in the hundreds of thousands of tonnes ever year, often to feed the international shark fin trade. These nations adopting sustainable fisheries policies would be especially beneficial for shark conservation (Bräutigam et al, 2015).
However, it is not just up to the nations that fish the sharks to take the blame! Because it is not necessarily these countries which actually consume the sharks they catch! China and Hong Kong are by far the largest consumers of shark fins, but it is not just shark fins - shark meat is also eaten in many countries around the world. The experts state that Australia, Brazil, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, the USA and most of south-east Asia (amongst others), have irresponsible levels of shark and ray meat and fin consumption (Bräutigam et al, 2015).
In order to make their consumption responsible these nations will need to engage the general public to bring about changes in consumer behaviour. If people choose not to eat shark or decide to only buy shark meat from sustainable fisheries, there would be no demand for unsustainable shark products! So these countries certainly need to make public education about shark conservation a top priority too (Bräutigam et al, 2015).
In parallel, to advance responsible consumption, these countries should also identify international shipping routes which import unsustainable shark products and only trade with those that source ethically. Because shark meat and fins are traded all around the world!
For example, shark fins consumed as soup in Hong Kong are most commonly imported from Spain, Japan and Indonesia and several countries which regularly export fins to Hong Kong practice unregulated or even illegal shark finning. If we were able to manage these unsustainable shark fisheries better, it would be possible to ensure that only products sourced from well-managed countries may be imported and exported to consuming nations (Bräutigam et al, 2015, Dent & Clarke, 2015, Shea & To, 2017).
However, currently there are many, many nations which must improve their trade in shark products. The experts identify that Australia, China, India, South Africa, the USA, and the majority of nations in south-east Asia and South America must ensure their international trade in shark products is more responsible. If the major consuming nations, like China, chose to only trade with countries that boast sustainable shark fisheries, it could put a huge dent in unsustainable shark exploitation (Bräutigam et al, 2015, Dent & Clarke, 2015).
Finally, it is of absolutely critical importance that we have better measures in place to stop the exploitation of endangered species of sharks. When a species considered to be endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, this does not automatically mean that they cannot still be killed by humans. All it means is we know that they are at risk of extinction. It is through legislation, like listing a species with CITES (The Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna), that we actually start to control the extraction of endangered species.
There are many nations around the world which have seriously endangered sharks in their waters, including Australia, South Africa, Spain, The USA, and nearly every country in South America and south-east Asia (to name a few). In countries where endangered species live, it is absolutely essential that the species threatened with extinction are not extracted in fisheries. This could include the implementation of Marine protected Areas (MPAs) to protect critical habitats for endangered species, listing of threatened species with CITES or implementation of national legislation which criminalises the fishing of specific species (Bräutigam et al, 2015).
You might have noticed that some countries popped up repeatedly in the previous paragraphs: Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, the USA... These counties have all been identified by experts as having multiple different problem areas... So they certainly have a lot of work to do... But the rewards could be huge! For example, for a country like Australia, which boasts high shark and ray diversity, including some of the most wonderfully bizarre animals and also some of the most critically endangered species, but also faces multiple problem areas, including unsustainable fisheries, and irresponsible shark consumption and trade, their efforts to improve conservation could not be more vital! If nations like Australia could take action, by improving their shark fisheries and trade, it could mean the difference between life and death for vulnerable species! (Bräutigam et al, 2015).
Shark conservation is a complex and dynamic challenge, but one thing is absolutely for certain... it is a global problem and affects each and every one of us! The health of our oceans is absolutely essential for the survival of humanity, but without sharks, ocean ecosystems could deteriorate and fisheries stocks collapse with them. The decline in sharks does affect you and it is up to each and every nation, and each and every individual, to do their part to make the exploitation of sharks more sustainable, through responsible trade, responsible consumption and carefully planned, science-based management of fisheries.
If you have seen the country you live in listed here, you can take action! Write to your local MP for fisheries or to your minister for the environment (Google who this is) and express your concern about unsustainable shark fishing!
And even if your homeland was not implicated here, you can still do something to help the global effort for shark conservation! Sign online petitions demanding sustainable fisheries or the abolishment of shark finning, donate to shark conservation charities, and use your consumer power - check the packaging for seafood you buy for a sustainability label and choose to only buy shark or ray products which have been ethically sourced.
Bräutigam A, Callow M, Campbell IR, Camhi MD, Cornish AS, Dulvy NK, Fordham SV, Fowler SL, Hood AR, McClennen C, Reuter EL, Sant G, Simpfendorfer CA & Welch DJ (2015). Global Priorities for Conserving Sharks and Rays: A 2015–2025 Strategy. Access online.
Dent F & Clarke SC (2015). State of the Global Market for Shark Commodities. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper No. 590. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.
Shea LH & To AWL (2017). From boat to bowl: Patterns and dynamics of shark fin trade in Hong Kong ― implications for monitoring and management. Marine Policy, 81, 330–339. Access online.
Shiffman DS & Hammerschlag N (2016). Preferred conservation policies of shark researchers. Conservation Biology, 30, 805–815. Access online.
By Sophie A. Maycock for SharkSpeak