Why We Need More Protected Areas to Conserve Sharks, and Benefit People

Opinion piece by Andy Cornish PhD, Leader of Sharks: Restoring the Balance, WWF’s global program to conserve sharks and rays.

A group of whitetip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus) gather on a reef near Roca Partida, Revillagigedo Archipelago, Pacific Ocean. © Joost van Uffelen / WWF

Tens of million sharks are killed every year, and some populations have declined by more than 95%. In 2014, a quarter of all species of sharks faced extinction, mostly because of overfishing, and that figure is undoubtedly higher today. It stands to reason that designating ocean areas where fishing is controlled should be one of the most straightforward ways to tackle the overfishing of sharks and rays. However, the application of this measure to date has proven somewhat complicated, demonstrating the need for a more comprehensive approach if such a management tool is to reach its full potential.

Spatial and time-based fishing closures have a long history and predate the focus in recent decades on MPAs (marine protected areas) for biodiversity conservation. In earlier times, spatial closures were aimed at ensuring the sustainability of the fishery and improving long-term fishery yields.

The use of spatial protection for conserving sharks was thrust into the limelight in 2009 when Palau designated the first large “shark sanctuary”, covering more than 600,000 sq. km. By 2016, the EEZs of a further 10 nations had been designated as shark sanctuaries and together with Palau covered an impressive 3% of the world’s ocean area. All ban commercial fishing for sharks, while some allow small-scale harvesting of sharks, and all permit fishing for other species.

The degree to which these shark sanctuaries have been effective has been the subject of some debate by scientists, and is not helped by the many shark sanctuaries that do not have specific management objectives nor the monitoring regime necessary to assess whether such goals are being achieved. 2 The term “sanctuary” implies refuge and protection by definition, so we can at least be reasonably sure that the intentions were more about species and/or ecosystem conservation than fisheries enhancement.

An alternative approach to examining the effectiveness of such areas was employed in a global review published last year, which interviewed experts on their perceptions on MPAs for sharks and rays in general (i.e. not just shark sanctuaries). The review revealed that shark and ray‐focused MPAs were perceived to be moderately effective, more so than general MPAs, and more focused on achieving shark and ray population objectives than other ecological or social outcomes. Other important conclusions included the need to add more social objectives such as livelihood benefits and community buy-in to enhance perceptions of successful shark MPAs, and employing these MPAs in concert with other approaches such as bycatch mitigation.

Scalloped hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini) have been the focus of spatial protection in a number of countries in the Eastern Pacific Tropical Ocean. © Antonio Busiello / WWF-US

The findings of both of these studies and many others have been incorporated into A Practical Guide to the Effective Design and Management of MPAs for Sharks and Rays, a first-of-its-kind publication released by WWF and James Cook University. The idea was conceived in late 2016 when a growing trend of using spatial protection to conserve sharks and rays was evident, including within WWF. It seemed to me that there was a strong need for a “one-stop shop” based on best practice to make it as easy as possible for those planning shark MPAs to incorporate the latest scientific thinking and increase the likelihood of successful outcomes.

I approached Prof. Colin Simpfendorfer of the Centre for Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture at James Cook University with this idea, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that his team had just secured multi-year funding from the Shark Conservation Fund for a global project on maximising outcomes for shark and ray MPAs. The project included analysis of existing MPAs for sharks and rays that we could draw on for the MPA guide. And so the project began, with Dr. Cassie Rigby from Colin’s team taking on the role of lead author.

Meanwhile, the growth in shark and ray MPAs has continued, and by 2018 there were 38, covering around 6% of the world’s oceans. Success stories include the Cocos Island National Park in Costa Rica, designated in 1978. A variety of species including Galapagos sharks, whale sharks and tiger sharks increased in occurrence over a 20-year period. In Indonesia’s Raja Ampat region, two no-take zones supported more blacktip reef and grey reef sharks than a nearby fished area after less than 10 years of designation. Meanwhile, a mechanism set up in Fiji to financially compensate nearby villages for not fishing in the small tourism-focused Shark Reef Marine Reserve was so successful that additional settlements asked to be part of the scheme and were accepted.

The new MPA guide for sharks and rays provides advice that can be retrofitted to existing MPAs, or when designing new spatial protection from scratch. There are sections on how best to involve local stakeholders in spatial conservation for sharks, and on monitoring and evaluation, alongside more shark-specific matters such as accounting for shark movement patterns, protecting critical habitats and reducing fishing-related mortality.

Well-planned spatial protection can provide multiple benefits for coastal communities as well as sharks and rays. While the combined area of existing shark MPAs is impressive, there is still a huge potential yet to be tapped. One area ripe for growth is the use of spatial protection in conjunction with bycatch mitigation and other approaches to move mixed-species fisheries that take sharks towards sustainability, of which there are a huge number. For example, spatial protection for sharks taken by pelagic fisheries on the high seas is almost non-existent at present, and could surely have benefitted species such as the shortfin mako shark which is fished commercially, and whose conservation status has significantly worsened recently.

Shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus) numbers are declining due to overfishing in coastal and offshore fisheries. © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF

Another area is to protect the most important habitats for populations in real trouble, as part of comprehensive recovery plans. Wedgefishes and giant guitarfishes, which have just been declared the most endangered families of sharks and rays, are among the many species that could potentially benefit. A healthy dose of urgency, regardless of the most locally applicable approach, is badly needed given how many species of shark and ray are tipping towards extinction.

The guide offers advice on all these and more, and links to two companion guides, the Rapid Assessment Toolkit for Sharks and Rays and Responsible Shark and Ray Tourism, A Guide to Best Practice.