[Note: this is the first in a series of commentaries by researchers with WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) during Shark Week documenting challenges and successes in shark and ray conservation today.]
Last month, an incredible group of scientists from multiple countries and institutions published the first-ever deep dive into the status of the world’s coral reef sharks in the journal Nature.
The result of more than five years of dedicated research under a project known as Global FinPrint, this fantastic effort will shape policy for years to come. WCS proudly participated in this work, released during the lead-up to the annual celebration of all things chondrichthyan otherwise known as Shark Week.
Yet the results, while impressive, suggest a deeply troubling trend. We face the very real possibility that in future decades Shark Week, rather than a celebration, might represent more of a poignant remembrance of the ancient predators that once roamed our oceans and reefs but have since mostly disappeared.
That’s because the study, which covered 58 countries with coral reef ecosystems, found no sharks on their underwater camera traps on 20 percent of reefs, likely meaning they are already functionally extinct on those reefs. Many more study areas revealed very few reef sharks, due to decades of overfishing that has disproportionately impacted sharks due to their slow growth rates.
The study found no sharks on their underwater camera traps on 20 percent of reefs, likely meaning they are already functionally extinct on those reefs.
A few bright spots remained, but the warning here was stark — and supports findings in recent assessments by the IUCN that over 30 percent of shark and ray species are threatened with extinction, with that number growing.
Despite this gloomy picture, however, there is hope. The study’s analysis highlights priority countries where conservation action can be taken to improve shark populations, confirming what we already know in terms of the countries with the biggest fisheries and most endangered species.
The study further highlights that strong shark and ray protections, such as well-enforced MPA’s, bans on capture, or robust fisheries management measures have a significant positive effect on reef shark numbers. This is where WCS comes in. This science, which confirms many of the base principles of our shark and ray work, provides a roadmap for us to support conservation action where it is most needed.
This week, we will showcase how a range of WCS marine programs are tackling the crisis facing the world’s sharks based on scientific advice supported by our own and the wider communities’ research.
This week, we will showcase how a range of WCS marine programs are tackling the crisis facing the world’s sharks based on scientific advice supported by our own and the wider communities’ research. In that we work, we aim to engage — and prioritize the needs of — people who rely on sharks and rays as a source of food or tourism revenue, a complex challenge in this work as shark populations plummet.
This Shark Week, we will look in detail at some of the remaining shark hotspots highlighted in the FinPrint project, such as one of our newest areas of shark conservation in Papua New Guinea. Then, we will look at a location the Nature research highlights as conservation priority, Madagascar, and our wider regional shark and ray project that includes its neighbors Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. Finally, we will look at Indonesia and Bangladesh, two of the world’s largest shark and ray catching and trading countries, where urgent action is needed to bring sustainability to large scale shark and ray fisheries.
Our hope is that with this growing program of shark and ray work, and the understanding we are gaining from studies like FinPrint looking at which conservation measures work best, we can halt shark and ray declines and ensure future the stars of Shark Week continue to put in an appearance.
Luke Warwick is Director of the Sharks and Rays Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
Read the other pieces in this WCS series for Shark Week here: