Mar 4
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In the News: 100 million sharks killed each year by commercial fishing

The most accurate assessment yet of the consequences of commercial shark fishing estimates that around 100 million sharks are killed every year.

shark killed by fishermen, lying on beach

shark killed by fishermen, lying on beach

Shark warning

Ahead of the 16th meeting of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species that runs from the 3rd to the 15th of March this year, researchers are again warning that sharks are in need of better protection. A new report, published in the journal Marine Policy, estimates the annual number of sharks killed by commercial fishing to be around 100 million, although the actual number could be anywhere between 63 million and 273 million.

The large range in these estimates is due to the poor quality of data available. However, the median estimate of 100 million is by far the most accurate to date. It is extremely difficult to gauge the actual level of shark fishing globally as many sharks are killed at sea and their bodies discarded without being included in official reports.

Oceanic whitetip shark

The oceanic whitetip shark is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and its fins are highly prized in international trade

Unsustainable exploitation

Commercial shark fishing is driven mainly by high demand for shark fin soup which is considered to be a delicacy in Asia. Sharks are often ‘finned’, which means their fins are removed, and the dead carcasses discarded at sea. However, they are also killed for sale of their meat, liver oil, cartilage and other body parts.

Although a ban on shark finning is in place in the European Union, Canada and the USA, it has not had the desired effect in terms of protecting vulnerable shark species. Fisheries have responded to the ban by no longer finning sharks at sea, instead keeping the carcasses, other parts of which can also be sold. The number of sharks killed has barely changed, the root cause of the problem has yet to be solved, and finning is still widely unregulated in many parts of the world.

The current rates of exploitation are vastly unsustainable and a number of vulnerable shark species are in decline. Sharks are slow to grow and reproduce; Boris Worm, one of the report’s authors from Dalhousie University in Halifax, says, “Biologically, sharks simply can’t keep up with the current rate of exploitation and demand. Protective measures must be scaled up significantly in order to avoid further depletion and the possible extinction of many shark species in our lifetime.”

Severed shark fins on boat deck

Dead sharks are often discarded back into the sea once their fins have been removed

Calls for increased protection

Previous attempts to increase the protection of some species of shark have failed, but scientists are hopeful that this time increased trade controls will be introduced for species such as porbeagle, hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks. Proposals at this year’s CITES meeting suggest the listing of five shark species on Appendix II of the Convention, including three species of hammerhead shark, which would mean that international trade in these species should be carefully regulated.

Elizabeth Wilson, Manager of conservation charity Pew Environment says, “A simple vote ‘yes’ to support their listing could turn things around for some of the world’s most threatened shark species. Countries should seize this opportunity to protect these top predators from extinction.

Scalloped hammerhead shark

Proposals suggest increased trade restrictions on five shark species, three of which are hammerheads

The number of sharks caught between 2000 and 2010 has not changed significantly, and as a result there are fears that some shark populations will crash as commercial fisheries continue to meet demands. Trade in manta ray species is also increasing, which has led to a decline in the numbers being recorded and is also having an effect on the tourism industry. Divers pay large sums of money to view manta rays in the wild, and their decline could have massive impacts on the tourist industry in places such as Mozambique, where there has already been an 86% decline in manta rays.

Reef manta ray

Trade has increased in manta ray species, causing population decline

We want to see better protection for sharks and will be pushing for this strongly at CITES next week. I am keen to see trade controls introduced for vulnerable and endangered species like porbeagle, hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks and manta rays,” says the UK environment minister, Richard Benyon.


 Read more on this story at BBC – Shark kills number 100 million annually, research says, and The Guardian – 100 million sharks killed each year, say scientists


View photos and videos of porbeagle, hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks on ARKive.


Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author

Jan 22
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In the News: Mackerel off the menu?

For years, mackerel has been considered to be an ethical choice of fish for consumers, yet recent overfishing has led to this species no longer being a sustainable choice, according to the Marine Conservation Society (MCS).

Atlantic mackerel image

Mackerel has been downgraded to ‘amber’ on the MCS Good Fish Guide

Green to amber

In light of the drastic decline in stocks of cod and other much-loved food fish in recent years, mackerel has been promoted by the likes of Jamie Oliver and Raymond Blanc as an ethical, and healthy, alternative for consumers.

However, mackerel is distinctly absent from the most recent list of fish deemed by MCS to be from well-managed, sustainable stocks or farms, and is therefore no longer considered to be the best option for consumers. In its latest update to the Good Fish Guide, MCS has downgraded mackerel to the amber category, meaning that the society recommends that consumers only eat mackerel occasionally. International arguments over quotas have been cited as the reason for this species no longer being viewed as a sustainable choice.

At the moment, the stock biomass according to the scientific data is above the levels that are recommended. However, the number of fish being removed is above the target and too high,” said Bernadette Clarke, Fisheries Officer at MCS. “The stock is good for now but it is currently declining. It is now rated as a fish to eat only occasionally – it is not rated as one to avoid.”

Atlantic mackerel image

Atlantic mackerel

Placing the blame

Once found mainly in the northeast Atlantic, mackerel stocks have since been on the move, following their prey of squid and crustaceans westwards towards Iceland and the Faroe Isles. As a result of this shift, it has been reported that Icelandic and Faroese fisheries have increased the amount of mackerel that they catch, leading to overexploitation of the stock.

The total catch is now far in excess of what has been scientifically recommended and previously agreed upon by all participating countries,” said Clarke. “Negotiations to introduce new catch allowances have so far failed to reach agreement.”

Yet in a statement issued last year, Icelandic ambassador to the UK Benedikt Jonsson insisted that his country had worked for years to reach an agreement on mackerel fishing.

We have repeatedly offered proposals that sustain the mackerel population and ensure a fair outcome for all countries,” he said. “Unfortunately, certain countries have responded with attacks on Iceland and threats of sanctions, while simultaneously demanding a vastly oversized portion of the mackerel catch. The facts are clear: Icelandic fishing is generally recognised as sustainable and responsible.”

Atlantic herring image

Atlantic herring has been suggested as an alternative to mackerel

Celebrity endorsement

Celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who has promoted mackerel as an alternative fish in the past, has now said that he would be dropping his call for mackerel to be more widely eaten, with the exception of locally caught fish in support of fishermen. Fearnley-Whittingstall is angered by the fact that mackerel stocks have been allowed to become depleted, and urges countries involved in current disputes to reach an accord as soon as possible.

When we started the mac bap campaign two years ago, mackerel was certified as sustainable and part of a well managed fishery,” he said. “Unfortunately, things have changed, and politics and greed are getting in the way of common sense. If the countries involved could agree sensible catch limits this could still be a certified sustainable fishery.”

Moving forward

MCS has recommended that consumers should seek alternatives to mackerel, including herring and sardines, or ensure that any mackerel purchased is caught locally using traditional methods, therefore being as sustainable as possible.

However, such recommendations have not been well received by Scottish fishermen for whom mackerel is a critical stock, with £164 million of the popular fish landed in 2011.

The stock is actually still well above the precautionary level, even if Iceland and the Faroes continue to do this,” says Bertie Armstrong of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation.

So far, political representatives have been involved in 12 rounds of talks in an attempt to come to a mutual agreement on mackerel quotas, and the UK’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) believes that this is the only way forward. It is clear that action needs to be taken for mackerel stocks to recover.

We hope that these so-called mackerel wars can be laid to rest as soon as possible, so we can all go back to eating mackerel again with a clear conscience,” said Fearnley-Whittingstall.


Read more on these stories at BBC News – Dispute means mackerel is no longer catch of the day and The Telegraph – Mackerel no longer an ‘ethical’ choice because of overfishing.

Learn more about the work of the Marine Conservation Society.

Find out more about the Atlantic mackerel on ARKive.


Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

Oct 21
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Endangered Species of the Week: European eel

European eel (Anguilla anguilla) photo

European eel (Anguilla anguilla)

Species: European eel (Anguilla anguilla)

Status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Interesting Fact: It is thought that all European eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea after a migration of around 5000 km from European rivers.

European eels are catadromous fish, meaning they spend much of their lives in freshwater but migrate to the sea to breed. Transparent eggs hatch into larvae known as leptocephalli, which drift in the sea for up to three years. Pushed towards the European coast by ocean currents, they then undergo metamorphosis into young, transparent eels known as glass eels. Becoming darker, the young eels, now known as elvers, start to migrate up freshwater streams in large numbers. These eels remain in freshwater for up to 20 years, growing up to 1 metre long. Once sexually mature, the eels migrate back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. Relatively little is known about the life history and migration routes of the European eels once at sea.

Eel populations have declined in recent years. The threats facing the species are not clear but it is thought that pollution, overfishing, habitat degradation, parasite infection and climate changes are all potential causes of the decline. Regulations are in place to protect these rare eels, including reducing fisheries, restocking, improving habitats and making rivers passable.

Find out more about European eels and their conservation on the eeliad project website.

See videos and images of the European eel on ARKive.

Lauren Pascoe, ARKive Researcher

Aug 26
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Endangered Species of the Week: Atlantic halibut

Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) photo

Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus)

Species: Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus)

Status: Endangered (EN)

Interesting fact: The Atlantic halibut is the largest flatfish in the world.

Like other species of flatfish, the Atlantic halibut is curiously adapted to life on the ocean floor. They have evolved to lie on one side of their body, flattened sideways. The Atlantic halibut lies on its left side and both eyes tend to migrate the right side of the head during development.

The Atlantic halibut is found in the cold waters of North Atlantic coasts. Larvae can be found drifting within the water column, and will migrate to the ocean floor when they reach about 4 centimetres. The Atlantic halibut has a relatively slow growth rate and can live up to 50 years. Young Atlantic halibuts feed on crustaceans, while older fish tend to hunt other fish, such as cod, haddock, herring and skate.

The slow growth rate and late onset of sexual maturity makes the Atlantic halibut extremely vulnerable to the effects of overfishing. Over the last two centuries the Atlantic halibut has suffered massive declines throughout its range due to overfishing. Today, population levels are still in decline. They are now too low to sustain target fisheries, but the Atlantic halibut is still caught as bycatch by bottom trawlers and longliners.

There is currently no management plan in place for this fish and it is thought that numbers of Atlantic halibut will continue to decline. The recovery and survival of this Endangered flatfish species depends on reducing bycatch in other highly exploited fisheries.

Find out more about this endangered flatfish on the Fisheries and Oceans Canada website.

See images and videos of the Atlantic halibut on ARKive.

Lauren Pascoe, ARKive Researcher

Jul 28
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National Marine Week

This week marks National Marine Week here in the UK where Wildlife Trusts up and down the country are putting on a whole host of marine related events to encourage people to get out and about and explore our stunning coasts. From rock pool exploration to searching the sands, get in touch with your local Wildlife trust to find out more about what’s going on and how you can get involved.

Why not start your marine adventures by dipping your toe into ARKive and exploring our many thousands of fascinating sea animals and plants.

On the sand

A sandy beach can often resemble a desert but if you look carefully, you can often find the sand packed with lugworms. These worms can grow up to an impressive 20 centimetres long and can be located by looking for casts of defecated sand material above their burrows. Lugworms also provide an important food source for many different species of seabirds.

Lugworm casts

Casts of deposited sand material are a sure indicator for the presence of lugworms


Lugworm photo

A lugworm outside its sandy burrow

Into the sea

Though we may complain that the sea is usually to cold to swim in, Britain’s temperate waters are frequented by over 23 different species of dolphins and whales including the bottlenose dolphins.  If you are going anywhere by boat this summer you may well see theses energetic dolphins jumping out of the sea and even riding the swell at the front of the boat.

Bottlenose dolphin pod

Pods of bottlenose dolphins are often not at all shy of boats

Britain’s cooler waters are also visited by fascinating species of fish such as basking sharks, theses humongous fish can reach weight of over 3 tonnes, all on a diet of plankton!

Basking shark photo
The basking shark requires its large mouth to passively feed on plankton

On the cliffs

A vast amount of the British coastline is cliff , which provides vital nesting sites for a huge variety of sea birds. The most distinct and recognisable of all of these is probably the puffin.  Breeding colonies are located around the UK and the birds are present from April to mid August. Visitors to these locations are usually well rewarded with sights of puffins returning to their cliff top nest burrows with beaks stuffed full of sand eels.


Puffins perched on the cliff edge


Photo of a puffin with sand eels in beak

A puffin with a successful catch of sand eels

Exploring the rock pools

Britain’s rocky shores are loaded with rock pools just waiting to be discovered. Though they may look like mini underwater paradises, rock pools are often harsh environments and are prone to high temperatures and variation in salinity. Some of the animals you can hope to see in rock pools around the UK include limpets, sea anemones, various seaweeds and a variety of crustaceans such as the common prawn and common shore crab.

Common prawn

Common prawns can often be found in rock pools...


Common shore crab are common shore crabs

Remember to check the tides as the most interesting pools will only be exposed at low tide and of course don’t forget your bucket and net!

George Bradford, ARKive Media Researcher


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