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The top 10 shark conservation stories of 2011

Caribbean reef shark, Bimini. Photo credit: David Shiffman

2011 was a relatively good year for sharks and rays. Presented below, in no particular order, are ten important shark conservation stories from the past year.

1. Shark sanctuaries. The world gained several new shark sanctuaries, areas where shark fishing is banned, in 2011. Nations creating new shark sanctuaries include Honduras (~92,000 square miles), the Bahamas (~240,000 square miles), Marshall Islands/Guam/Palau (a regional partnership protecting almost 2 million square miles). Numerous concerns about enforcing rules in these huge areas, as well as concerns about potential loopholes in the policies, exist among conservation scientists.

2. Fin bans. These laws ban the possession, trade, or sale of shark fins within the boundaries of a city, state/territory, or country. In 2011, Hawaii’s first-in-the-US fin ban took effect, and a few other US states (California, Washington, and Oregon) passed similar laws. There is an ongoing debate in the shark conservation community about whether blanket bans on finning are better than promoting best practices (i.e. more sustainable shark fishing techniques). Additionally, some are concerned that we aren’t focusing enough on other threats to sharks like bycatch and habitat destruction.

3. Hammerheads and tiger sharks protected from fishing in Florida. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has added tiger sharks, as well as smooth, scalloped, and great hammerhead sharks, to their list of prohibited species. Starting in January of 2012, anyone who catches one of these species in Florida state waters will be required to release it. I’m proud to say that my lab’s research was used to get protections for these animals.

4. Manta rays get Convention on Migratory Species protections. Just weeks after being added to the IUCN Red List, giant manta rays were added to Appendix 1 and Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species treaty. This move will encourage local and regional protective measures for these animals.

5. Proposed shark cull in Western Australia cancelled. In response to a series of shark attacks, the premier of Western Australia proposed a plan to cull local shark populations. This move would have been ecologically damaging and would have done little to protect swimmers. A media (both traditional and social media) campaign caused the Western Australian government to reconsider and cancel the cull.

6. Endangered Species Act listings. In August, the Largetooth Sawfish became the second elasmobranch to gain legal protection from the Endangered Species Act, one of the strongest environmental conservation laws in the world. The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service is also considering giving the same protection scalloped hammerhead sharks. However, they rejected a petition to list thorny skates.

7. Open access shark conservation research. In 2010, hundreds of shark scientists from around the world attended Sharks International, a multi-disciplinary shark science meeting, in Cairns, Australia. Last summer, the scientific journal Marine and Freshwater research published a special edition focusing on shark conservation and management research from Sharks International. Included in this special edition is the article that won the inaugural WhySharksMatter most important shark conservation paper of the year award.  The entire issue is open access, and is a great resource for conservationists, students, managers, and scientists.

8. IUCN Shark Specialist Group Symposium. At the 2nd International Marine Conservation Congress, the largest-ever gathering of marine conservation scientists, a shark conservation symposium was organized by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group. That symposium was recorded and placed online, and is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in shark conservation and management.

9. Taking shark fin soup off the menu. Quite a few hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores around the world chose to voluntarily stop serving shark fin soup. These include Singapore’s Cold Storage Supermarket chain, Luxury Peninsula hotels (locations throughout China), and Foster’s Foods in the Cayman Islands (which also now sponsors shark research).

10. ICCAT protections for silky sharks. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas passed a new proposal that will help protect silky sharks, which are considered Vulnerable to extinction in the Northwest Atlantic by the IUCN Red List. The original proposal would have made it illegal to keep any captured silky sharks, as well as to land them or ship them internationally. Objections were raised by developing nations, and a compromise which allows some catch for local consumption in exchanged for improved reporting of shark catches was eventually passed. Proposals to protect porbeagle sharks and to require landing sharks with fins naturally attached did not pass.

While this list of successes is impressive, there is still a lot of work to be done to prevent sharks, skates, and rays from becoming extinct. I hope that 2012 will be an even better year for marine conservation.