Scientists Recommend International Shark Protections

New technical advice for International Atlantic Tuna Commission highlights species at risk, suggests measures to prevent overfishing.

Scientists Recommend International Shark Protections

The Shark Alliance is highlighting today’s release of long-awaited shark conservation recommendations from scientists advising the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).  The scientists’ report reflects efforts to assess the population status of the blue and shortfin mako sharks (the shark species taken most often in ICCAT-managed fisheries for tuna and swordfish) and to evaluate the overfishing risk for these and nine more Atlantic shark and ray species.   Inadequate information on catches prevented clear conclusions for blue and shortfin mako sharks while cutting-edge analyses of biological characteristics helped to identify shark species at greatest risk for overfishing.  Scientists recommended protections for poorly understood species and those deemed especially susceptible to overexploitation.

“Sharks are among the most vulnerable and neglected species of the Atlantic Ocean,” said Sonja Fordham, Shark Alliance Policy Director.  “The new, scientific report offers clear guidance for initiating urgently needed, international shark conservation efforts in the Atlantic.  Given European dominance in ICCAT fisheries and increasing interest in shark conservation, we urge the European Union to take the lead in securing the world’s first international catch limits for sharks in line with this advice next month at the ICCAT annual meeting.”

The report, adopted today by ICCAT’s Standing Committee on Research and Statistics (SCRS), contains groundbreaking “Ecological Risk Assessments” for a suite of species of sharks and rays, including longfin mako, bigeye thresher, common thresher, oceanic whitetip, porbeagle, smooth hammerhead, scalloped hammerhead, silky sharks and the pelagic stingray.  These analyses demonstrated that most of these species have exceptionally limited productivity and, as such, can become overfished even at very low levels of fishing.   The bigeye thresher shark was identified as the species at greatest risk for overfishing.

Scientists recommended that managers consider restricting catch of the shark species associated with high biological vulnerability, conservation concern, and uncertainty.  They pointed to prohibitions on landing and mandatory release rules as means to protect such species and prevent the development of unsustainable shark fisheries, noting that such measures would be particularly effective for species expected to survive well after being captured on longline fishing gear.

The bigeye thresher shark was singled out as a top candidate for such protection because this species is exceptionally unproductive, poorly understood, easily recognizable, caught in low quantities, and likely to survive capture if released. Previous analyses have shown that porbeagle sharks also have a relatively high rate of post-release survival. 

Although data on Atlantic shark fishing have improved in recent years, such information is still too incomplete to support reliable population assessments for blue and shortfin mako sharks.  Scientists did not detect serious depletion for blue sharks.  Results were mixed for shortfin makos, with some analyses indicating North Atlantic population depletion at 50% or more since the 1950s.

Last year, ICCAT directed its scientists to review the status of porbeagle populations and develop management recommendations “as soon as possible, but no later than 2009”.   Scientists delayed development of advice for porbeagles and focused instead on conducting an assessment for the beleaguered species next year.  The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) has repeatedly recommended ending fisheries for Northeast Atlantic porbeagles.  A Canadian assessment of Northwest Atlantic porbeagles estimates that this population needs roughly 100 years to recover from overfishing.   Directed porbeagle fisheries persist in Canada and France while boats from Spain and the UK target the species opportunistically.

Based on the advice agreed today and related scientific findings, the Shark Alliance is calling for ICCAT Parties to promote and agree the following at their November annual meeting:

  • Immediate release and no retention of particularly vulnerable open-ocean shark species, with priority given to bigeye threshers, porbeagles, oceanic whitetips and hammerheads; 
  • Reduced fishing for shortfin mako sharks, as agreed in 2007; and 
  • A cap on catches of blue sharks until safe fishing limits are determined and imposed.

“Waiting to act until data and population assessments are certain rewards lax data reporting and leaves sharks at great risk for long-standing depletion,” added Sandrine Polti, Fisheries Policy Advisor for the Shark Alliance. “Action based on this scientific advice is necessary to prevent further population declines and ensure that fishing pressure on these slow-growing species is sustainable.”

Notes to editors

The Shark Alliance is a coalition of 55 conservation, scientific, and recreational organizations dedicated to improving European shark fishing policies.

ICCAT is responsible for the conservation of tunas and tuna-like species in the Atlantic and adjacent seas. Currently, ICCAT has 46 contracting parties including the European Union.

Most sharks grow slowly, mature late, and produce a small number of young and are therefore more susceptible to overexploitation and depletion than other species taken in ICCAT fisheries.

Oceanic sharks regularly cross jurisdictional boundaries, yet are not subject to any international restrictions on catch. 

Oceanic sharks, particularly porbeagles and makos, are prized for their meat and fins and, as such, are targeted and often retained when taken incidentally.  ICCAT requires the reporting of shark catches, but many countries are not complying.

In 2007, ICCAT Parties, except for Canada, agreed to reduce fishing pressure on North Atlantic shortfin makos and porbeagle sharks.

The European Commission is expected to complete its long-awaited Community Plan of Action for Sharks in December.

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