Guest commentator Debbie Salamone is a communications manager at the Pew Environment Group.
This year, an estimated 73 million sharks were killed worldwide.
The human hunt for shark fins and meat continued mostly unabated in 2010, leaving as many as a third of all species potentially headed for extinction.
While much work remains, this year delivered a few highlights for shark conservation. Here’s a look back and a glimpse of what’s ahead:
*In the last days of its session this week, the U.S. Congress tightened loopholes in the nation’s shark finning ban when it passed the Shark Conservation Act. My colleagues at Pew and my fellow shark attack survivors had been pressing for this action for more than 18 months, since we initially visited the U.S. Capitol in July 2009 to make our case.
As a shark conservation leader, the U.S. is now well positioned to push for similar measures in other countries.
Shark finning is a process where fishermen slice off the fins and dump the animal, sometimes still alive, back in the water where it drowns or bleeds to death. It’s wasteful and unsustainable. The lucrative fins are then traded internationally as a soup ingredient in Asian markets.
*The United Nations General Assembly this month renewed its commitment to work toward setting scientifically sound shark fishing limits and to end shark finning.
What the countries did not do is take an even tougher stance for shark conservation—to both stop finning and commit to stop fishing for threatened and near threatened species. I and my fellow shark attack survivors from across the globe pushed for those measures when we assembled at the UN in September. We’ll keep pressing that cause in 2011.
*Soon after the survivors left the UN, two countries challenged the rest of the world to establish shark sanctuaries and to prohibit shark fishing in their own waters. In the process, Palauan President Johnson Toribiong and Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa emerged as strong conservation leaders.
Palau created a shark sanctuary in 2009, and Honduras has a moratorium on shark fishing. In March, the Maldives declared its 35,000 square miles of Indian Ocean—roughly the size of Portugal—as a sanctuary and is now working to ban the trade in shark fins. Some countries are realizing that these animals are a tourist draw and are worth far more alive than dead. Other countries should follow suit.
*In November, half a dozen species of vulnerable sharks taken on the high seas won protections in the Atlantic Ocean. The measures approved by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) will ban the catch and retention of oceanic whitetip and hammerhead sharks, with the exception of subsistence fishing of hammerheads in developing countries for local consumption.
This was a positive step for ICCAT, which is a regional fisheries agreement that is supposed to conserve and manage fish in the Atlantic high seas, but has not taken a strong stance on sharks in the past. Maybe this refreshing path toward shark conservation will continue in 2011 and more species can be protected.
*In the Pacific, another regional fishery management organization this month agreed to undertake assessments on the status of eight species, including silky and oceanic whitetip sharks. The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission is now requiring catch data on these and an additional five species, including porbeagle and four species of hammerheads. This information is critical so managers can figure out the best measures to help save these sharks. It’s a good start, but it would have been better if protections were adopted now. Instead, these vulnerable animals will continue to be killed while these assessments are conducted.
2010 has been a better year for sharks, but so much more needs to be done. Pew and the shark attack survivors are encouraged by these initial steps toward conservation, but we’re also running out of time to save these amazing animals that have been on earth since the time of the dinosaurs. We cannot let 2011 pass without the adoption of bold measures for the conservation of sharks.