Today is world nature conservation day! A day when we must all take a moment to acknowledge the terrible declines that some species have suffered as a result of human activity... Today sharks and rays are considered to be one of the most threatened groups of animals on the planet. The IUCN Red List estimates that a quarter of all sharks and rays are now threatened with extinction. This means that hundreds of different species have been classified as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable. So what does being flagged as threatened actually mean? How do we conserve threatened species? And which species of sharks and rays are most at risk of extinction?
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is a global, multiagency alliance of scientists and conservationists who assess the populations of different species of plants, animals and fungi. When a species is categorised as Vulnerable (Vu) to Critically Endangered (Cr) by the IUCN, this means that it has a very real risk of becoming extinct in the wild (IUCN, 2023).
However, just because a species is not found in this category, does not mean there should not be concern. It takes time and a lot of work to assess each and every species. Therefore, many species have not been evaluated, or are classified as Data Deficient, meaning there has not been enough research to assess their populations. It is estimated that as many as 68 other species of Chondrichthyans (sharks, skates and rays) would also be added to the IUCN Red List if they had been properly assessed (IUCN, 2023).
Amongst the sharks, the most concern goes to the Critically Endangered species, such as the Pondicherry shark (Carcharhinus hemiodon), which has not been seen in the wild since 1979 and the common angel shark which has been "extirpated" (become locally extinct) in European waters and the hammerheads (Sphyrna mokkarran and S. lewini), which have declined by as much as 90% in some areas (to learn more check out Hammer Time) (Dulvy et al, 2017).
Shark Conservation Strategies
Over the last 20 years, the international community has taken steps to implement conservation measures for endangered sharks. Generally speaking, these initiatives involve either:
Protecting a specific threatened shark species or
Protecting critical habitats, such as foraging, mating and/or nursery habitats
Sharks are extremely ecologically diverse, so a one-size-fits-all conservation strategy will simply not work for every species. Therefore, it is more effective to design management strategies specifically for each individual species, based upon scientific advice regarding their unique reproduction, movement ecology and life-history strategy (Dulvy et al, 2017).
For example, sharks with an especially low reproductive output require stricter management to allow their populations to recover, whereas other species may be more robust. Some species live in restricted geographical ranges (known as an "endemic" species) and therefore, their habitats are a priority for protection. This is especially true for endemic species which live in coastal environments, which are particularly vulnerable to habitat degradation from human activity; from pollution, urbanisation and fisheries (Dulvy et al, 2017).
Sharks which are especially vulnerable to extinction can be protected by limiting their extraction in fisheries. However, many species are migratory, so management of their populations must involve international collaboration. Whatsmore, some species are "pelagic", living in international waters, which can mean litigation limiting their extraction is not governed by any one country; this can create disagreements between nations and seriously hinder conservation strategies. One of the most significant roadblocks for shark conservation is that regulations and management strategies are fragmented between nations and limitations are not consistent globally (Techera & Klein, 2011).
CITES = Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
However, there are some global initiatives which seek to improve this situation. CITES is an international agreement between governments, which places controls over the international trade of animal products. Their aim is to ensure that trade does not threaten the survival of endangered species. Currently, at least 180 parties are now involved in the agreement and they meet regularly to discuss updating the convention to expand the list; including any species which have developed protection needs in the interim. The trade of products for many different species of sharks are managed by CITES, meaning illegal import and/or export is punishable by international law (Dulvy et al, 2017)
On the other hand, habitats that are critical for the survival of sharks (such as foraging areas, nursery habitats and mating sites) can be protected, by converting the area into a Marine Protected area or shark sanctuary. These areas can be strict "no-take zones", meaning fisheries are entirely banned, or they can have temporal and/or spatial bans, which can give the population time and/or space to recover. This allows all the sharks which utilise a specific area to benefit from protection from disturbance and extraction (Dulvy et al, 2017).
Whatsmore, MPAs also benefit every other species which lives in the habitat. As the area is zoned for protection, this can also confer conservation benefits on non-target species, and build the complexity and robustness of the ecosystem as a whole. There are now more than 17,000 MPAs globally, encompassing an area of 26,947,375 km2 of ocean (Dulvy et al, 2017)
MPAs and shark sanctuaries have been shown to be effective for improving shark conservation in some areas, but outside of the no-take zones or further out, in international waters, the extraction of sharks is still incredibly high today! To find out more, head over to Do Shark Sanctuaries Work?
Where do we go from here?
All of these efforts are fantastic and I cannot express how glad I am that so many people are working so hard to improve conservation strategies for sharks. However, sadly, more is needed. Shark populations are still declining globally and implementing stricter controls over fisheries, further limiting shark product trade and increasing the areas of habitats protected will be needed to bring many populations back up to healthy levels (Dulvy et al, 2017).
These measures can only be successful if we all work together to make it happen... governments, nations and unions must all be engaged with shark conservation... But the drive for those in power to take action comes from you! The citizens! Each and every one of us has the power to aid in conservation efforts and we all have a part to play!
To help to save sharks YOU can:
Choose to buy only sustainably caught fisheries, to limit illegal trade. You can easily find sustainable fisheries logos on fish packaging.
Learn the sneaky names used to disguise shark meat, which is on sale at many fish mongers; these include, but are not limited to "Huss", "Rock salmon", "Gummy", "Flake", "Dogfish", "Catfish", "Moki", "Rigg", "Sea ham", "Sokomoro".
Join social media pages about shark conservation to stay up-to-date with developments and spread the word about shark conservation.
Support marine protected areas and shark sanctuaries, by choosing to visit the area when you are travelling. The money you spend there will feed directly back into conservation efforts and maintenance of the site.
Educate everyone you know about shark conservation. Friends... family... and especially your children! After all, all these conservation efforts are for them - to protect the natural world for the enjoyment of many generations to come!
More more information you can check out our other articles on conservation.
Techera EJ & Klein N (2011). Fragmented governance: Reconciling legal strategies for shark conservation and management. Marine Policy, 35, 73–78. Access online.