This World Oceans Day, a Crisis at Sea
The decline of ancient predators, sharks and rays.
By Luke Warwick
June 6, 2019
This World Oceans Day, let’s talk about an endangered species crisis at sea: the rapid and precipitous removal of the ocean’s ancient predators, sharks and rays.
The recent IPBES report paints a stark warning of the status of the world’s cartilaginous fishes — 31% of sharks and rays are now threatened with extinction, one of the highest rates of all the animal groups analyzed. We must act now to help this wildlife or regret it forever.
In a paired effort, supported by the Shark Conservation Fund, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has recently re-assessed a vast number of shark and ray species, finding sawfish near extinct and wedgefish and guitarfish set to join them (and most all of them Critically Endangered). Even formerly abundant pelagic sharks, such as the shortfin mako, are now Endangered around the globe.
These animals have been regulating ocean ecosystems since the time of the dinosaurs, but we risk losing them in a matter of decades.
Coming up, though, we have opportunities to address the challenge. In the next few months, the 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), postponed from May, is likely to be held. When it is, the conservation of the world’s increasingly endangered sharks and rays will be a frontline issue.
In advance of the CoP, over 60 countries, including representatives from every continent, are championing the listings of a record 18 species of sharks and rays on the Convention’s appendices. These measures would mandate that any continued trade in the species be done from sustainable, legal fisheries. Given all of the new evidence of the threats sharks and rays face, this type of measure is the bare minimum these commercially exploited animals need if we are to transition from unsustainable, unregulated fisheries to global management that is suitable for such inherently vulnerable species.
WCS is working with a wide range of partners globally to showcase why these listings are so important, and, working with those partners has, over the last three months, held workshops in Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, South Asia, the Middle East, and Oceania in the build-up to the intergovernmental summit. These meetings are leading to strong conclusions — with whole continents publicly declaring their support for additional shark and ray protections.
Additionally, WCS has developed new guides to help governments identify the 18 species of wedgefish, giant guitarfish, and mako shark being considered for listing this year, along with tools they can use to develop policies to protect or sustainably manage the species, and we have used these global workshops to distribute these resources. We want to help turn the political momentum of the CITES listings into conservation change on the ground, via an approach that uses these high-level drivers, but also supports their implementation, just as we have done in Indonesia, Bangladesh, and hopefully in many more places we work.
If the listings are successful, CITES will be helping to regulate as much as 20% of the global trade in shark fins that threatens many species’ survival, and this has prompted, and will continue to prompt, domestic change in many countries globally. However, that change needs to be more rapid almost everywhere sharks are caught, and many more species need this level of attention if the dire warnings of the IPBES report are to be heeded before time runs out.
While just the starting point, CITES can be a fantastic motivator for the conservation not only of listed species but of all sharks caught or traded in a given country, as past progress proves. WCS will be working at all levels of this issue to ensure that sharks and rays are around to help keep our oceans healthy.
We do this work where we feel it matters most, in hotspots of shark and ray abundance and diversity, but also where there’s fisheries pressure, like in South and Southeast Asia. This includes in large, shark-fishing nations such as Bangladesh and Indonesia.
And it’s in these places that we are starting to see the change we need if we are to prevent the animals’ total loss. As an example of this progress, the Indonesian government, working with WCS Indonesia and a range of other partners, has recently taken the first steps toward sustainably managing one of its larger-scale shark fisheries.
This is a crucial move for the country and it also demonstrates a bigger trend. Since 2013, CITES has started offering trade protections to sharks and rays, and this new legally binding driver for change is pushing countries to end years of mismanagement and take action domestically to prevent illegal trade, even prompting change in the world’s biggest fisheries. Change is occurring all around the world and WCS is leading in many locations.
The ocean is changing for sharks and rays with the introduction of threats they were never designed to survive. Now, we have to change before it’s too late by offering these species appropriate conservation measures that give them a chance to live through the various pressures we have put on them.
Luke Warwick is Associate Director for Sharks and Rays at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).