Hammerhead shark, © Barry Peters

International Communities Push for Shark Protections

by Brian Bovard

Sharks are facing an undeniable worldwide threat as populations are pushed to the brink of extinction due to targeted and by-catch over-fishing. Up to 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins alone in a brutal process known as “finning” which involves slicing off a shark’s fins, usually while it’s still alive, and discarding the body at sea. As demand for this pricey commodity, which can sell for over $300 per pound and is used primarily to make an Asian delicacy shark fin soup, continues to soar shark populations across the world will continue to plummet. As predators at or near the top of marine food webs, sharks help maintain the balance of marine life in our oceans and research shows that the massive depletion of sharks will have cascading effects throughout the oceans’ ecosystems.

Fortunately countries across the world are recognizing the dangers posed by these massive depletions of shark species. This past week Defenders of Wildlife’s International Counsel, Alejandra Goyenechea, along with government representatives from 50 other countries worldwide, had the honor of attending the first meeting of signatories to the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Migratory Sharks concluded under the UN Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) which took place in Bonn, Germany. Defenders was present to ensure that proper conservation measures were in place as participants adopted a new conservation plans, which aims to catalyze regional initiatives to reduce threats to migratory sharks. Signatory states also agreed to involve fishing industry representatives, NGOs, and scientists in implementing the conservation plan.

Under the Memorandum of Understanding, countries agreed to exchange information among government bodies, scientific institutions, international organizations and NGOs for better cooperation. Improved monitoring and data collection will help assess the structure, trends and distribution of shark populations necessary to design targeted conservation measures. Although the memorandum of understanding for the conservation of sharks was made non-binding, the signatories agreed that fishing quotas for sharks must be established and monitored closely while by-catch for mako, spiny dogfish, porbeagle, basking, white, and whale sharks must be monitored much more diligently.

Currently 258 shark species are listed as threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. An additional 210 species are listed in the Data Deficient category because of a lack of sufficient population data, which itself suggests these species are at high risk. The IUCN has estimated that 32 percent of open-ocean sharks are threatened with extinction. Sharks are slow to grow, slow to reach sexual maturity, very slow to reproduce, with some shark species having gestation periods of up to two years, and so are particularly susceptible to overfishing. Also shark species that are coastal swimmers, mostly pregnant females are very easy targets for overfishing. Fortunately there is a growing global awareness to protect sharks as more states and countries pass legislation that will protect these magnificent species.