Threat to ocean sharks increases

The threat to ocean-going sharks is more severe than previously thought, according to conservation experts.

Scientists with the World Conservation Union, which publishes the Red Lists of Threatened Species, have upgraded the “threat” category of several sharks.

Those now considered “vulnerable to extinction” include the shortfin mako, a favourite of recreational fishermen, and the long-tailed thresher shark.

Scientists say over-fishing is a principal reason for the decline.

The World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) shark specialist group announced their re-assessments at a workshop in Oxford, UK.

“Despite mounting threats and evidence of decline, there are no international catch limits for pelagic (ocean-going) sharks,” said Sonja Fordham, deputy chair of the shark specialist group and policy director for the Shark Alliance.

“The workshop results underscore the urgent need for international fishery commissions to limit fishing for these vulnerable species and strengthen regulations on the wasteful practice of finning.”

Cutting off shark fins, which are prized for soup in some east Asian cultures, is banned in many fisheries. But IUCN says enforcement is often weak.

Mature problem

Sharks are more vulnerable than many other types of fish to environmental threats because they generally mature slowly and reproduce relatively late in life.

“The qualities of pelagic sharks – fast, powerful, wide ranging – too often lead to a misperception that they are resilient to fishing pressure,” commented Sarah Fowler, shark specialist group co-chair.

“But several species are now threatened with extinction on a global scale.”

The world’s biggest fish, the whale shark, is one of them. Researchers found evidence last year that so many large specimens are being caught that the average length of the fish is falling.

However, many of the most threatened species are found in rivers and coastal waters, with the Ganges shark, the striped dogfish of South America and the European angel shark among those considered “critically endangered”.

The new assessment sees the status of the scalloped hammerhead, another coastal species, worsen from “near threatened” to “endangered”.

Hammerheads are among the most commonly caught sharks for finning.

Accidental catching by fishermen is as much a threat as targeted fishing.

There is a complex set of criteria for deciding which species go in which category of risk.

“Vulnerable” can mean that species numbers have declined by 50% in 10 years if the main threat is removed, or by 30% if the threat is still present; “critically endangered” can mean a 90% decline over 10 years.

The Oxford workshop is one of a series in which IUCN scientists are aiming to generate a more accurate picture of the threats to sharks and their close cousins, the rays.

Many of these species have not been studied sufficiently for scientists to assess their status, yet threats in the form of fishing and habitat disruption are clearly present.