Mar 12

In an historic day for shark conservation, five species of shark have been awarded additional protection at the CITES meeting in Bangkok, Thailand.

Oceanic whitetip shark image

The oceanic whitetip shark is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List

Historic day for sharks

Conservationists have spent nearly two decades working to get sharks listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and at the latest meeting they have finally succeeded, winning the vote for five shark species and two species of manta ray to receive better protection. While similar proposals have been rejected in the past with strong opposition from China and Japan, new-found support from West African and Latin American countries swayed the most recent vote in favour of the sharks.

Today’s outcome could be a turning point in how CITES can assist in the regulation of trade in marine species,” said Glenn Sant, Marine Programme leader with TRAFFIC. “If accepted in plenary, this meeting will go down in history as the one where CITES finally realised its marine potential.”

Restrictions and regulations

The seven species, three of which are highly threatened but commercially valuable, will now be listed under Appendix II of CITES. While this does not equate to an outright ban on trade in these species, it does mean that tougher regulations will be put in place, with the introduction of strictly controlled permits to import and export fins. Nations will face heavy sanctions if too many individuals of the species in question are fished.

During the meeting currently being held in Thailand, a two-thirds majority voted to upgrade the CITES status of the great hammerhead shark, scalloped hammerhead shark, smooth hammerhead shark, oceanic whitetip shark, porbeagle, giant manta ray and reef manta ray.

Porbeagle image

The porbeagle narrowly missed out on protection at the 2010 CITES meeting

Threats to sharks

As we reported in the ARKive blog earlier this month, sharks and rays face many threats, with an estimated 100 million individuals killed every year. Overfishing in particular has led to an unprecedented decline in shark numbers, and as these highly sought-after species are slow to mature and produce few offspring, they are extremely vulnerable to population crashes.

While the fins of the scalloped hammerhead are among the most valuable, protection has also been awarded to two other hammerhead species, as there was concern that these species could be targeted should only the scalloped hammerhead receive protection.

Shark finning image

Shark fin soup is a delicacy in certain countries

Turning point

Experts believe that the critical factor in the latest ground-breaking decision is the shift in the views of South American nations, who are coming to understand that live sharks are more valuable to local communities than dead ones.

They’ve come to realise, particularly for those with hammerhead stocks, the tourist value of these species and the long term future that will be protected by a CITES listing,” said Dr Colman O’Criodain from WWF International.

An additional factor in the recent shark victory was money, with cash being made available from the European Union to help poorer countries change their fishing practices.

Great hammerhead shark image

The great hammerhead is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List

Importance

Removing sharks from the ecosystem can have a serious and detrimental knock-on effect on the rest of the food chain. Without top predators, prey species can burgeon and destroy stocks of other commercially valuable species such as scallops.

We are thrilled that the tide is now turning for shark conservation, with governments listening to the science and acting in the interests of sustainability,” said Elizabeth Wilson, manager of Pew’s Global Shark Conservation campaign. “With these new protections, they will have the chance to recover and once again fulfil their role as top predators.”

The battle is not over yet

While the latest news from CITES is promising for sharks, there is still the possibility that the ruling could be overturned – and hopes dashed – during the plenary session on the final day of proceedings. Back in 2010, the porbeagle won protection in earlier sessions, only to be stripped of it in the plenary by just one vote.

Yet there is still hope for the struggling shark species, and it is hoped that some good will come of the early decision.

This is a landmark moment showing that the world’s governments support sustainable fisheries and are concerned about the reckless over-exploitation of sharks for commercial use,” said Carlos Drews, head of WWF’s delegation at CITES. “Today’s decision will go a long way in slowing down the frenzied overfishing of sharks that is pushing them to the brink of collapse to feed the luxury goods market.”

Read more on this story at BBC News – ‘Historic’ day for shark protection and The Guardian – Five shark species win protection against finning trade.

View photos and videos of sharks, rays and related species on ARKive.

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

Mar 4

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

Nov 23

European Union politicians have voted overwhelmingly to close a loophole that allows sharks to be slaughtered for their fins.

Photo of fisherman holding dorsal fin cut from scalloped hammerhead

Fisherman holding dorsal fin cut from scalloped hammerhead

The vote means that the shocking practice of slicing the fins off live sharks and discarding their bodies at sea will be outlawed, ending a loophole that rendered a nine-year-old finning ban effectively useless.

EU companies catch sharks in the Atlantic, Indian, Mediterranean and Pacific Oceans, and the EU is one of the largest exporters of shark fins to Asia. The fins are used to make shark fin soup, which is considered a delicacy in some countries.

Photo of great hammerhead swimming up from seabed

The great hammerhead, classified as Endangered by the IUCN, is just one species in demand for its fins

Despite a ban on shark finning in 2003, a loophole allowed companies with freezer vessels to apply for special permits enabling them to continue fishing for shark fins if they landed the fins separately from the sharks’ bodies. The issuing of these permits unfortunately became standard practice, meaning companies could easily get around the ban.

Sharks under threat

Tens of millions of sharks are killed every year to meet the increasing demand for shark fin soup, despite many species being classified as threatened by the IUCN. Conservationists have welcomed the EU vote on finning, but warn that more still needs to be done to save sharks.

Photo of whale shark kept in shallow water by fishermen until it is ready to be slaughtered

Whale shark being kept in shallow water by fishermen until it is ready to be slaughtered

Parliament’s overwhelming support for strengthening the EU finning ban represents a significant victory for shark conservation in the EU and beyond,” said Ali Hood, Director of Conservation at the Shark Trust. “Because of the EU’s influence at international fisheries bodies, this action holds great promise for combating this wasteful practice on a global scale.”

According to Scottish MEP Alyn Smith, who has campaigned for years for the strengthening of the finning ban, “Shark finning is not only immoral but it is threatening the very survival of many native European species. It is astonishing to think that one-third of European sharks are classed as under threat – something I hope will now change.”

Photo of oceanic whitetip shark, anterior view

The oceanic whitetip shark is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN

Groups campaigning for the conservation of sharks will now turn their attention to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which is meeting in March next year to consider proposals from the EU and US to list commercially valuable but threatened shark species. Listing these species on CITES would mean that international trade in the sharks should be carefully monitored and controlled, or may be completely banned.

Read more on this story at The Guardian – EU to close shark finning loophole.

Find out more about shark conservation at The Shark Trust, Save our Seas Foundation and the IUCN Shark Specialist Group.

View photos and videos of sharks on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Nov 17

Species: Great hammerhead  (Sphyrna mokarran)

Great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran) photo

Great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran)

Status: Endangered (EN)

Interesting Fact: The great hammerhead can sometimes be cannibalistic, with larger adults preying on juveniles.

The great hammerhead is found in warm temperate and tropical waters around the world. During summer, these sharks migrate towards the poles in search of cooler waters. A true ocean predator, the great hammerhead preys on stingrays, groupers, small, bony fish, crabs, squid, other sharks and lobsters. Feeding mainly at dusk, the great hammerhead locates prey using an electro-sensory system which can sense the weak electric field produced by all living organisms.

Although not fully understood, the hammer is thought to help the shark scan larger areas of the ocean floor for food, and that it maximises the area of the sensory organs (known as the ampullae of Lorenzini) that can detect chemical, physical and thermal changes in the water, as well as electric fields.

The great hammerhead is threatened by overfishing. Its fins are used for shark fin soup, liver oil for vitamins, skin for leather, and its meat for fishmeal. Fortunately, the increasing recognition of these threats has led to the implementation of finning bans by fishing states in the U.S.A., Australia and the European Union. Bycatch limits for sharks in the South African longline fishery are also helping to conserve this endangered species.

Find out more about hammerhead sharks on the BBC Nature Website.

See videos and images of the great hammerhead on ARKive.

Lauren Pascoe, ARKive Researcher

Mar 14

Remote camera traps are now being used underwater to study shark behaviour for conservation research.

Caribbean reef shark image

The Caribbean reef shark has a relatively short, broadly rounded snout

From land to sea

During the last decade, camera traps have become a popular tool with biologists and conservationists to monitor land-based wildlife, particularly threatened and elusive species such as the snow leopard. Now, this technology has been put to use in an entirely different realm – the oceans.

Sharks, like their feline counterparts, are threatened top predators, so between 2005 and 2010, a team of marine biologists from New York’s Stony Brook University deployed underwater video camera traps in Belize to monitor the population of Caribbean reef sharks found there.

The idea behind the baited camera traps, nicknamed ‘chum cams’, was to find out whether Marine Protected Areas, where fishing is entirely prohibited, are home to more sharks than non-protected areas. In total, 200 cameras were placed both inside marine reserves and in fishing zones in the Caribbean Sea.

Caribbean reef shark image

Bony fish and large crustaceans are among the preferred prey species of the Caribbean reef shark

Feeding on film

The smell of the bait, or ‘chum’, attracted sharks to the camera traps, which enabled scientists to record, count and compare the shark populations in two different marine reserves, Glover’s Reef and Caye Caulker, with those found in two fishing zones.

According to the research, published in the journal PLoS One, sharks were caught on film at nearly four times as many camera sites within the marine reserves as in non-protected areas. Data from tagged sharks also revealed that many sharks remain in the protected areas year-round.

Although we know that relatively sedentary reef fish and lobsters benefit from marine reserves, this study now presents visual proof that large, active sharks are also dramatically more abundant inside these protected areas, too,” said Mark Bond, lead author of the paper and doctoral student at the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science.

These areas provide the sharks and other coral reef species a respite from fishing, which means decreased fishing mortality for the sharks and more prey for them to eat.

Caribbean reef shark image

Caribbean reef shark injured by a fishing hook

Sharks at risk

In recent decades, populations of many shark species have suffered steep declines, with the lucrative trade in fins for shark fin soup being a key contributor. The Caribbean reef shark, which is intensively fished and is also often caught as bycatch, is currently listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List.

Our study demonstrates that marine reserves can help protect shark species that live on coral reefs. Moreover, the use of underwater video monitoring provides us with an excellent tool to determine if populations are recovering and thriving inside these reserves,” concludes co-author Ellen K. Pikitch, executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science.

Tiger shark image

Tiger shark

Ecotourism

Further shark research, this time surrounding the concept of ecotourism, was also published this week in the British Ecological Society’s journal Functional Ecology. This study, by scientists at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, revealed that the feeding of tiger sharks at offshore dive sites does not appear to adversely affect their behaviour.

Dive operations offering shark feeding tours have become a highly lucrative industry, and there were fears that feeding sharks could change the behaviour of the animals, making them more susceptible to threats. However, by using satellites to track the behaviour and movement of tiger sharks off Florida and in the Bahamas, the researchers discovered that this was not the case.

The researchers hypothesised that tiger sharks in the Bahamas, where chum is used to attract sharks for dives, would show restricted movements at the dive sites. However, the opposite was found to be true. Tiger sharks in the Bahamas site roamed over an area almost five times greater than tiger sharks in Florida, where the use of chum to attract sharks is illegal.

In a study conducted last year by co-author Neil Hammerschlag, results indicated that shark dive tourism generated more money for local economies than killing the animals for their fins.

He said, “Given the economic and conservation benefits, we believe managers should not prevent shark diving tourism out of hand until sufficient data were to demonstrate otherwise.”

Read more on this story at Mongabay.com – Camera traps go under the ocean, seeking sharks.

Read more about the shark and ecotourism story at CBC News – Ecotourism no threat to tiger shark behaviour.

Learn more about sharks on ARKive.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Species Text Author

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