Sept. 5, 2012
-- Five rays and sharks are receiving priority attention at this week's IUCN World Conservation Congress held in Jeju, Republic of Korea. The congress is the world's largest conservation event. One of the five sharks is the porbeagle, shown here. Porbeagles are vulnerable globally, and are classified as critically endangered in the Northeast Atlantic. Their low reproductive capacity combined with over-fishing has led to severe population declines over several parts of its range. "Sharks and rays have traveled the Earth for more than 400 million years," said Dr. Cristián Samper, president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society and keynote speaker at the Jeju congress. "Yet, in only recent decades, many of these species have become threatened from overfishing and, in some instances, have disappeared entirely from major portions of their range." He added, "The potential loss of one of only two groups of the world's living fishes is a crisis the world community must take decisive action to address. We are calling for governments around the world to vigorously support CITES international trade regulations and strengthen fisheries management and protection measures for shark and ray species. We cannot continue to allow the destruction of these wonders of evolution."
Manta Rays Fate Worse Than Sharks
The oceanic whitetip shark is critically endangered in the Northwest and Central Atlantic Ocean. It's frequently sought after for its fins, used to make shark fin soup. Usually the rest of the dead or dying shark is then tossed back into the sea. Andrew Brierley, a University of St. Andrews marine ecologist, told Discovery News that when sharks like this die off, the deaths can cause a domino effect of other ecosystem losses. Shellfish, for example, may go into decline because they are consumed more by predators that the sharks would normally prey upon. "The trophic cascade brought about by the increasing demand for shark fin soup has not only left once economically valuable bivalve fisheries in crisis, but has precipitated an ecological and culinary bankruptcy," explained Brierley.
Scalloped hammerhead sharks are endangered all around the globe. This tropical species forms large migratory schools at certain times of the year. The aggregating behavior, distinct from that of other sharks, makes the shark particularly vulnerable to fishing. "We estimate that many millions of sharks are killed annually through both legal and illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing for the trade in fins, the prime ingredient in shark fin soup," said Dr. Rachel Graham, director of WCS's Gulf and Caribbean Sharks and Rays Program. "The high price for fins has caused the global shark fishery to expand far beyond what is sustainable. The need for international regulation and enforcement has never been greater."
Shark Paradise Found
Many rays, such as these, are also in peril. The Wildlife Conservation Society and over 35 government agencies and NGO partners at the congress additionally highlighted population loss problems associated with so-called "devil rays," which feed on planktonic crustaceans. Small schooling fishes become trapped on their specialized gill rakers. Rays are frequently captured in target fisheries and as bycatch across much of their range. One reason is that the gill rakers are dried and exported for the Asian medicinal market.
Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR
The reef manta ray, shown here, is among the world's largest fishes. Both it and the giant manta ray can grow several feet across. They are slow growing, however, typically giving birth to only one pup every two to three years. They are migratory and occur in small, highly fragmented populations that are sparsely distributed across the world’s tropics. Manta rays are captured in targeted fisheries and incidentally as bycatch. In addition, manta rays are used for human consumption, shark bait, and -- as for devil rays -- are increasingly sought for their gill rakers. "The international trade in shark and ray products, including fins, meat, and other body parts, is driving shark and ray fisheries around the world, and most of these are unmanaged or only minimally managed," said Dr. John Robinson, WCS's executive vice president for Conservation and Science. "Lack of controls on fisheries and international trade puts species at risk, but also jeopardizes sustainable fisheries, ecosystems, and food security." The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora will meet in Thailand in March 2013.
PHOTOS:Shark Teeth Weapons Reveal Surprises
I once planned to eat shark steak every August on the anniversary of being attacked by a shark off Florida's east coast. This year, the 10th anniversary, might even have called for a special party with steaks for all my guests.
A lot has changed in a decade, however -- for me and for sharks.
I never ate the first steak because my quest for revenge was short-lived. By the first anniversary, my severed Achilles tendon was healing and I was walking. I had searched for a reason why I was attacked. What I found was a renewed purpose, using my unique status and perspective as a survivor to pursue what had always been dear to me: ocean conservation.
I left a newspaper job in which I had focused on environmental stories and earned a master’s degree in environmental sciences and policy at Johns Hopkins University. I went to work for The Pew Charitable Trusts, where I recruited other attack survivors from around the world to help save sharks. We set about pushing for conservation measures in Congress and at the United Nations.
And in many ways today, sharks are better off.
For one, many more people are realizing that sharks have more to fear from humans than we do from them. Since my attack, scientists have quantified the tremendous loss: approximately 100 million sharks killed each year, mostly for their fins, which primarily are sold for the Asian delicacy shark fin soup. With such carnage, it’s not surprising that more than half of all shark species are headed for extinction.
These statistics have helped prompt officials in China and Hong Kong to ban shark fin soup from official banquets. Some hotels have stopped serving it, and certain airlines are no longer transporting the fins. Organizations have formed to educate consumers and potentially reduce demand. Around the globe there are more shark conservation groups, movies and television shows about the plight of sharks than ever.
Shark attack survivors visit the United Nations in 2010 to ask countries to end fishing of vulnerable species and create sanctuaries where commercial shark fishing is banned.The Pew Charitable Trusts
Finning -- slicing off a shark’s fins and dumping the animal overboard to drown or bleed to death—has been reduced in many areas of the world. The public has turned against finning, a practice that allows fishermen to fit more of the valuable fins on their boats, and many countries and regions, from the U.S. to Europe, have required that sharks be brought to port with fins attached.
More sharks also have international trade protections now, including the great white. Two recent studies show that great white populations are increasing off U.S. coasts. And 10 countries have set up shark sanctuaries where commercial shark fishing is banned, creating 5 million square miles of ocean as safe havens for sharks.
Of course, we have a long way to go. The sheer number of sharks taken from the ocean is threatening the health of marine ecosystems; because sharks are slow-growing, late to mature, and bear few young, they cannot quickly replenish their populations and fulfill their vital role at the top of food webs. And while finning has been reduced, some fishermen are now skirting the requirement that sharks be brought to port with fins attached by "spining": They leave fins attached to the spine but strip off all the meat and dump it overboard, still making room on board for more sharks.
Meanwhile in the United States, which took a leadership role in banning finning, 11 forward-thinking states and territories, including New York, Illinois, California, and Guam, have gone even further and banned the sale and trade of shark products. Yet these states and territories are fighting to keep their regulations, because the federal government says they interfere with U.S. fishing laws. That stance is a step backward for shark conservation.
Saving sharks is a battle that will last for many years. This Aug. 29, as I remember those bloody and terrifying moments on the beach, I will not look back with horror and sadness, but rather look forward with a sense of hope. As we continue to achieve better protections for sharks, those will be anniversaries worth celebrating.
Debbie Salamone is a communications officer for The Pew Charitable Trusts and organizer of Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation.