By Simone Niedermueller, Mediterranean Shark expert, WWF
“We want the Mediterranean to be like heaven — but there’s no heaven without angels.” As a child, Danijel Kanski had read about angel sharks in the sport-fishing book he was given. According to the book, angel sharks grew nearly as big as a tuna, and were common in waters around Zadar (Croatia) where he grew up. But after more than 1,000 scuba dives and several WWF expeditions, Danijel has not seen a single angel shark in Croatian waters, not even dead at the market.
What happened? The answer is as sad as it is familiar: over a few decades, the once-common angel shark has been all but wiped out by overfishing.
Sharks and rays across the region have never been in a worse situation, a fact made shockingly clear in WWF’s new report Sharks in crisis: a call to action for the Mediterranean.
The report brings together the latest research to show how populations of sharks and rays are being decimated by targeted and untargeted fisheries — a situation made much worse by lack of management, lax regulations, poorly run markets and a general lack of data and knowledge.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), of the 73 species of sharks and rays found in Mediterranean waters more than half are under threat. These latest numbers are significantly worse than in the IUCN’s previous assessment 10 years ago. In all 20 species are classed as Critically Endangered, which means they face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. The angel shark is one of them.
Sharks have been part of Mediterranean culture for thousands of years, and as important actors in the ecosystem — from apex predators which keep the food pyramid steady to rays in their complex seabed habitats — they’ve always been an indicator of the state of the broader marine environment.
Sharks and rays tend to be slow-growing, they are late to reproduce and to reach a large body size, and produce few young after long gestation periods. This means many species struggle to recover from population declines. It’s something that’s happening all over the Mediterranean.
Overfishing is the single biggest threat to sharks and rays. Some species are directly targeted, while others are caught in large numbers as bycatch. Every type of fishery catches sharks and rays. More than 60 species have been recorded in trawls, while in some areas more than a third of the total longline catch is comprised of sharks and rays. Enormous numbers are caught in (illegal) driftnets, while Critically Endangered species are sometimes found in purse seines. Even small-scale fisheries using trammels and gillnets can see a significant proportion of their catch made up of sharks and rays.
Some of the catch finds its way to markets via various legal and illegal means, while much of the rest is simply tossed back into the sea.
“Overfishing affects all species”, says Danijel — who now works as a WWF marine expert in Croatia — “from large pelagic species like basking sharks, threshers, great whites, makos and giant devil rays, to the smaller rays and cat sharks that range around the seabed, to the kinds of creatures — angel sharks, guitarfish, chimeras — that some people might be surprised to discover exist in the first place”.
WWF’s new report highlights a number of factors that fishers and fishery managers should consider in conserving shark and ray populations, from avoiding critical habitats and using adapted gear, to changing soak/trawl times and improving at-vessel handling protocols.
“I see two alternative paths ahead for sharks and rays in the Mediterranean”, continues Danijel. “If we take the easy route and carry on doing what we’re doing today, in a few years populations will have fallen still further, and local extinctions of several charismatic species are likely. In Croatia, for example, the smoothback angelshark is already reported as regionally extinct.”
The ripple effects of the devastated stocks will be felt everywhere from marine ecosystems to tourist destinations, and fish-crazy kids will be left wondering about the once-common species that have become no more than Mediterranean myths.
Sharks and rays are in a crisis that requires urgent, radical and widespread action. As such, our WWF Mediterranean team are working closely with fishers to build awareness of the situation and engaging with them in developing solutions to ensure sharks caught in fishing nets have a better chance of surviving and making it back to the sea. At the same time, we’re urging countries and fisheries management organizations to put in place effective measures to ensure the recovery of sharks and rays, both through improved fisheries management and by establishing protection measures in areas that are key for reproduction.
Danijel has a daughter now, and she’s crazy about sharks too. If we approach this crisis as seriously as we need to, maybe one day she’ll get to swim with the angels that her dad only ever read about in his book.
Get more information about WWF’s work to save the Mediterranean Sea.