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Surviving the Most Destructive Animal of our Planet

by Alex Rose & Michael AW

Sharks are one of the oldest biological life forms on our planet. They have played an essential role in the world’s oceans for more than 400 million years, surviving multiple mass extinctions. But sharks are poorly endowed to withstand the threat posed by the most destructive specie on our planet - humans.

Shark’s life history characteristics, such as slow growth, late maturation, and production of few offspring, make them vulnerable to overfishing and slow to recover once their population are depleted. As a result, shark populations are in steep decline globally.

Though since 2000, all over the world, hundreds of environment organisations have initiated campaign after campaign to promote their conservation, the trade of sharks is still rampant on a global scale. The consumption of shark fins, meat, liver oil and other products are driving shark populations to extinction. The continued demand for shark fin soup has led to the killing of up to 73 million sharks a year. Of the shark and ray species assessed by scientists for the IUCN, 30 percent around the world are threatened with extinction. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, about 53 percent of highly migratory shark species are either overexploited or depleted. The status of another 47 percent of shark species is unknown.

Sustainable fishing of sharks is simply not possible. Due to their unique biology, sharks subjected to unregulated commercial fishing. Shark fisheries generally experience cycles of boom and bust, where initial high catches of sharks are followed by a precipitous crash. Without doubt, shark sanctuary is the strongest measure a nation can take to protect sharks, followed by shark fin trade bans, and then international and regional shark agreements and measures. The first shark sanctuaries were adopted by various mechanisms including presidential decree, fisheries regulations, and legislative action, but have three general components.

First, a shark sanctuary is an area in which commercial fishing of sharks is banned. Nations that have implemented shark sanctuaries have emphatically stated that they do not want commercial fishing vessels in their waters to target sharks. It is important to note that Palau and The Bahamas did not have a targeted shark fishery before they established shark sanctuaries, but the Maldives and Honduras did.

Second, a shark sanctuary permits zero retention of incidental catch of sharks. Many fishermen point out that it is difficult to fish for tuna or swordfish without also catching sharks as bycatch. Sharks are frequently caught alive and can be released back into the water, but other times they die on the line. The shark sanctuary countries decided that allowing the take of sharks caught as bycatch would provide a major loophole and economic incentive that would result in sharks being targeted and kept. Experience has shown that a shark sanctuary that does not require the immediate return of all shark bycatch to the sea, dead or alive, will be ineffective. For example, the Marshall Islands banned shark fishing in 2004 but allowed fishermen to keep them as bycatch. It found that doing so did not reduce the number of sharks killed in its waters. Distinguishing between fins taken from sharks that were caught as bycatch or purposely targeted is extremely difficult and costly to enforce; therefore, the Marshall Islands decided that the only sensible policy to ensure healthy shark populations was one that prohibited all retention of sharks and shark fins.

Finally, a shark sanctuary is a place where the sale, trade, and possession of sharks are banned. This characteristic is analogous to the trade bans that were implemented on ivory tusks to protect elephants. Although sharks are killed for their meat, skin, and livers, it is their fins that fuel targeted overfishing. A top-down ban of shark fin trade is an important component of protecting shark species from extinction.

Shark sanctuaries are of course the ideal way to protect these critically important marine species, but this route is taken fairly infrequently. Thankfully though, shark fin trade bans around the world are rising in popularity. Twelve states and three territories of the United States, as well as a number of municipalities in Canada, have instituted bans on the sale, trade, and possession of sharks and rays, including fins and other parts. When enforced in conjunction with the U.S. Shark Conservation Act of 2010, which requires that sharks be brought to land with their fins naturally attached to their bodies, these laws may ban the retention of sharks by fishing vessels in their respective jurisdictions.

However, it is noted that shark sanctuary countries typically do not ban catch-and-release recreational shark fishing inside shark sanctuaries as long as best practices to ensure the survival of the sharks are employed. Similarly, most shark sanctuaries permit artisanal shark fishing by subsistence fishermen for non-commercial use.

Several nations have taken steps to protect global shark populations, starting with Palau, which in 2009, created the world’s first national shark sanctuary banning the fishing of all species of sharks. Since then, the Maldives, Honduras, The Bahamas, Tokelau, and the Marshall Islands have also created national shark sanctuaries. Brunei is the first country in the world to ban fishing of sharks and trade of all shark products in 2013.

The only way to protect endangered species is to protect all species. With one exception (smooth dogfish), the U.S. shark fin bans prohibit the sale, trade, and possession of all species of shark fin, regardless of how the shark fin is obtained. Once a fin is removed from a shark, it is impossible to tell if the shark was killed by the shark finning method in which the fins are removed at sea and the bodies dumped in the ocean, or if the shark was brought to port with its fins naturally attached. Also, identifying fins by species becomes increasingly difficult as the fins are processed and prepared for shark fin soup. DNA analysis can identify species and sometimes the region where a shark was caught, but this technology is too expensive for enforcement purposes. For this reason, it makes sense to impose a total ban on all shark fins. The only way to ensure that endangered species of sharks are not killed for their fins is a total ban on the use of all shark product.

Protection must also be comprehensive. Language in shark fin laws of some states and territories is stronger than in others. Guam, for example, bans the largest number of activities, making it unlawful to possess, sell, offer to sell, “take, purchase, barter, transport, export, import, trade or distribute shark fins.” On the other hand, California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington do not ban fishing or “take”. Washington does not ban “possession“. Loopholes can arise if legal language is not all-inclusive.

It is also necessary for penalties and fines to be high enough to discourage black market trade and/or the incorporation of fines into the costs of doing business. Shark fins are big business and fines must be substantial enough to offset the economic incentive for trading in illegal shark products. The repercussions of breaking the law must outweigh the risk of getting caught.

Banning fins alone may not be enough. It is important to note that the state and territorial shark fin trade bans fall short of the protections of the national shark sanctuaries because none of the trade bans criminalize the trade of shark products other than shark fins. This can create a loophole that allows for the import, export, sale, trade, and possession of other shark products, including meat, squalene, cartilage, skin, liver oil, jaws, and teeth. Current shark fin trade bans are important for protecting endangered shark species and are clearly a move in the right direction, but they do not provide the full protection of a national shark sanctuary. We need comprehensive policies that prohibit the sale, purchase, trade, and possession of all shark products, not just fins. This is frequently a difficult proposition to adopt because of the growing number of commercial and political interests trading in shark products, but it will be necessary in order to protect sharks from extinction.

Falling short of a ban in shark fin trade, there are other ways to work towards better protecting these marine animals. Regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), the United Nations, meetings of regional associations, and international meetings all allow forums where transnational collaboration can be facilitated. Many marine species that are traded internationally are highly migratory, so their conservation can only be achieved if nations work collaboratively. That’s where CITES comes in. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—known as CITES—is an international agreement, signed by 183 parties, designed to ensure that international trade in animals and plants does not threaten their survival in the wild. The treaty was drafted in Washington, D.C. in 1973 and entered into force in 1975. The agreement provides a legal framework to regulate the international trade of species, ensuring their sustainability and promoting cooperation among CITES members, also known as CITES Parties. Species covered by CITES are listed in different appendices according to their conservation status. Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction and provides the greatest level of protection, including a prohibition on commercial trade. Appendix II includes species that are not currently threatened with extinction, but may become so without trade controls. Appendix III includes species for which a country has asked other CITES Parties to help control international trade.

CITES resolutions and decisions are made at meetings of the Conference of the Parties, which convene every two to three years. The most recent one – CoP18 in Geneva – saw the addition of 18 species of endangered sharks and rays to Appendix II. The species included in the list are endangered shortfin and longfin mako shark, six species of giant guitarfish and ten species of wedge fish. CITES listings are important because they can drive international and regional shark agreements that ultimately lead to the protection of migratory species across borders. These agreements can also build pressure for other nations to enact shark protections and improve enforcement through better collaboration.  

Progress is consistently being made, but the battle to protect sharks is a long one, and there is much work to be done. Since the 1970s, shark and ray populations have decreased by more than 70 percent. Considering the lack of sufficient data prior to the 70s and the explosion of industrial fishing in the 50s, it is likely that the real decline is far steeper. “Ongoing declines show that we are not protecting a vital part of our ocean ecosystems from overfishing, and this will lead to continued decline in the health of our oceans until we do something about it,” said Dr Cassandra Rigby, a biologist at James Cook University in Australia. Changes in shark abundance can affect ecosystems in significant ways with broad and negative outcomes, including the degradation of marine habitats and the collapse of commercial fisheries. Sharks need protection before the ecosystem effects of their decline become irreversible. It is more important now than ever that policy makers enact proactive measures on a global scale in an effort to prevent the eventual demise of our ocean ecosystems.


The Nature of Sharks

Sharks are critical apex predators, playing a key role in maintaining the structure and function of marine ecosystems. They regulate the variety and abundance of the species below them in the food web, including commercially important fish. Removing sharks can cause dramatic shifts in the population sizes of other species, which can cascade downward, disrupting the balance of an ecosystem.

Studies show that thriving coral reefs are also associated with healthy shark populations. In the Pacific, scientists compared the conditions of coral reefs in remote, less-populated areas with reefs that were heavily impacted by such human activities as overfishing and habitat destruction. In the remote locations dominated by sharks and other large predators, scientists found more stable, healthy coral reef ecosystems with a high abundance of sea life. In areas dominated by human activity where sharks have been overfished, changes were seen throughout the marine environment, including negative impacts on corals.

Similar studies in the Caribbean Sea found that many corals depend on herbivorous fish, such as parrotfish, to eat algae and allow new coral to settle and grow. When sharks are removed, larger fish that feed on herbivorous fish increase in abundance, causing a decrease in the amount of smaller fish grazing on algae. As populations of these fish declined, they were no longer able to keep algae growth in check, and coral organisms had trouble growing on the reef. As a result, the reef shifted to an algae-dominated ecosystem that lacked the diversity of marine species found in healthy coral reefs. These findings indicate that fish abundance and thriving coral reefs are associated with healthy shark populations. A healthy reef plays an important role in food security and provides resilience to environmental impacts associated with increased sea-level rise and pollution runoff.

The loss of sharks could cause irreversible damage to the ocean, and to economic activities, such as dive tourism, that benefit from healthy marine habitats. Because of the highly migratory nature of many shark species, the establishment of small marine protected areas or breeding closures is not enough to protect sharks that may swim beyond the boundary of safety. In addition, scientists have yet to agree on which critical life stages for sharks should be protected to ensure their survival, thus concluding sharks need protection throughout their lives.

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