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10 components of a sustainable shark fishery, and how you can help implement them

x3170e00In 1999, government officials from all over the world gathered in Rome for a meeting of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s Committee on Fisheries. The Committee meets every two years,  but one of the numerous outputs of this meeting was particularly significant, at least for sharks. Based on years of consultation and discussion by experts, the group agreed on a formal set of general principles that should make up sustainable and well-managed shark fisheries.

These 10 principles, part of a larger International Plan of Action for Sharks (IPOA-Sharks) , have helped shape more than a decade of scientific research and management priorities for the chondrichthyan fishes. When properly implemented and enforced, they allow people to use sharks (and rays and skates and chimeras, included in the IPOA-Sharks definition of “sharks”) as a natural resource while keeping populations healthy and allowing depleted stocks to recover.

According to the IPOA-Sharks, a national shark plan should aim to:

1) “Ensure that shark catches from directed and non-directed fisheries are sustainable.” This one seems pretty self-explanatory, but sustainable means different things to different people. As noted in this post, the definition generally used by fisheries scientists means removing fewer individuals from the population than can be naturally replaced by reproduction.

2) “Assess threats to shark populations, determine and protect critical habitats and implement harvesting strategies consistent with the principles of biological sustainability and rational long-term economic use.” Fishing in critical habitats, such as  migration routes, mating aggregation sites, and nursery areas should be carefully managed (which does not necessarily mean “no fishing of any kind ever”) . Additionally, scientific research is needed to determine the life history and reproductive biology of each fished shark species, so we can measure how many offspring they have, how often, natural mortality rates, etc. This data can (and should) be used to generate advice for fishing limits (quotas, size restrictions, closed areas/seasons, etc).

3) “Identify and provide special attention, in particular to vulnerable or threatened shark stocks.” If the population of a shark species is particularly low, then that species and/or its critical habitat should be protected from overfishing and other threats. This can take the form of a very low fishing/bycatch quota, a complete ban on fishing, a habitat closed to fishing,  listing under national-level  wildlife protection legislation ( i.e. Endangered Species Act listing), or being listed under CITES.

4) “Improve and develop frameworks for establishing and coordinating effective consultation involving all stakeholders in research, management and educational initiatives within and between States.”  Governments of shark fishing/consuming nations should be responsible for engaging fishermen, researchers, conservationists, consumers, and other interested parties in the processes for making shark fisheries management decisions and implementing resulting programs. This responsibility includes both domestic fisheries and working with other countries that share the responsibility of conserving the population.

5) “Minimize unutilized incidental catches of sharks.” For some species of sharks, bycatch is a bigger threat than targeted catch. A variety of methods can be used to reduce bycatch as well as incidental mortality of sharks caught as bycatch, including using different bait, using differently shaped hooks or hooks made of weaker material, fishing at different depths, removing wire leaders, using electromagnetic hooks to repel sharks,  and not fishing at all (or with particularly problematic gear) where and when sharks are commonly found. None of these solutions are perfect or broadly applicable. Many are controversial within the scientific community. Some can work extremely well for specific situations.

6) “Contribute to the protection of biodiversity and ecosystem structure and function.” As with #1, this seems pretty self explanatory. However, it raises important questions. How many current shark populations are healthy enough to still provide ecosystem services? How is this measured, and what are the thresholds for biodiversity health? If a population is too depleted to perform ecosystem services, what do we do? How are the needs of ecosystems weighed against those of resource users?

7) “Minimize waste and discards from shark catches in accordance with article 7.2.2.(g) of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (for example, requiring the retention of sharks from which fins are removed.)”Although this principle could be used to argue against “winging” of skates and for retaining blue sharks caught as bycatch in pelagic fisheries, it has usually been interpreted to mean that  finning (removing a shark’s fins at sea and dumping the carcass overboard) should not be allowed. Indirectly through national regulations and agreements at the Regional Fisheries Management Organization level, fishing nations have attempted to prevent finning in two primary ways. The first attempts were through “fin to carcass ratios,” which allow fishermen to remove a shark’s fins from a carcass at sea as long as the total weight of fins landed doesn’t exceed a certain percentage of the total weight of bodies landed. The U.S. adopted the first ratio in 1993 for Atlantic fisheries, set as 5% based on “dressed weight”. The EU in 2003 adopted a 5% ratio based on “whole weight.”   Fin ratio limits are better than allowing finning, but the actual ratio of the weight of a shark’s fins relative to its body varies widely by species, size, fin removal technique, etc. This allows unscrupulous fishers to cheat by potentially landing more fins (i.e. doing some finning). The alternative method, which is considered to be the best practice, is to only allow fishermen to land sharks with fins naturally attached to the carcass. Due to enforcement difficulties and public concern, the U.S. and the EU have banned at-sea removal of fins, although there is a notable and problematic exception in U.S. fisheries.

8 ) “Encourage full use of dead sharks.”  If you’re going to kill a shark, you should keep it and use as much of it as possible. Though shark fins receive the bulk of the attention from the conservation community (for good reason), the meat of most shark and ray species is sold for food or bait (or consumed locally). In some cases (porbeagle, mako) the meat is highly valued, and in some cases (smooth and spiny dogfish, skates) the meat is traded in very large quantities. Cartilage and liver oil, often from deep sea species is valued for pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. Shark and ray leather is also sold (although less commonly) as are shark jaws/teeth and even dead embryos in jars.

9) “Facilitate improved species-specific catch and landings data and monitoring of shark catches.” Many countries simply report their catch as “shark,” not distinguishing between species. In fact, despite multiple mandates, some developing countries do not even follow minimum standards of shark catch reporting. Very few countries have the resources and/or political will to invest fully in scientific assessments of shark populations. The lack of reliable fisheries-dependent data is a serious problem if we are to accurately measure population status and determine what measures are needed and/or if the current catch limits are effective.

10) “Facilitate the identification and reporting of species-specific biological and trade data.”  See #9.

It is important to note that adopting a National Plan of Action for Sharks (NPOA-Sharks) based on the IPOA-Sharks guidelines is entirely voluntary. To date, only 13 shark fishing nations have created such plans. It is also important to stress that NPOAs vary widely by countries, and often do not contain specific regulations (they are general guidelines). Regulations must still come into play through other processes. Still, encouraging countries to fulfill their public commitments to shark conservation and management is a great way for concerned citizens to help sharks.

While transparency in decision-making varies between countries (the U.S. and Australia are far better than most), the 10 principles associated with the IPOA-Sharks do offer opportunities for public engagement in most fishing nations.  In the past year alone, we’ve asked for your help with three of them here on the blog (five if you count #1 and #6). In participatory democracies, the public, including conservation activists, have an important role to play. By working together with scientists, government officials, policy experts, fishermen, and the mainstream conservation community, the strong passions of shark activists can be put to excellent use to help sharks.