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The ups and downs of 2013 shark conservation policy, and a forecast for the new year

Sonja Fordham President, Shark Advocates International

Sonja Fordham
President, Shark Advocates International

SAISonja Fordham founded Shark Advocates International as a project of The Ocean Foundation in 2010 based on her two decades of shark conservation experience at  Ocean Conservancy.  She is Deputy Chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group and Conservation Committee Chair for the American Elasmobranch Society, has co-authored numerous publications on shark fisheries management, and serves on most of the U.S. federal and state government advisory panels relevant to sharks and rays.  Her awards include the U.S. Department of Commerce Environmental Hero Award, the Peter Benchley Shark Conservation Award, and the IUCN Harry Messel Award for Conservation Leadership.

It’s been another exciting year in shark and ray conservation policy!  Once again, there’s a lot to herald, quite a bit to regret, and much work yet to be done.  Here’s my take on the year’s high and low points as well as a preview of key opportunities in 2014.  This post obviously reflects my perspective, and is therefore focused on science-based limits on shark and ray fishing and trade.  While the work has sometimes been exhausting, and this review is quite long, the scope is by no means exhaustive.

THE UPS

Few would disagree that the highly-anticipated, widely covered meeting of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was a major if not the highpoint for shark and ray conservation in 2013.  In March, countries around the globe agreed to list a record number of threatened shark and ray species under the treaty’s Appendices. Specifically, the oceanic whitetip shark, porbeagle, three species of hammerheads, and both manta rays were added to CITES Appendix II, thereby prompting a process to ensure exports are sustainable and legal.  In addition, the freshwater sawfish was at last transferred from Appendix II to I, where all other sawfishes are listed, thereby completing a global ban on international commercial trade in these exceptionally endangered species.

CITES has tremendous potential for conservation of elasmobranchs (sharks and rays) based on the fact that international trade is driving the decline of many species. Prior to 2013, CITES Appendix II included only shark species that are taken in relatively low volumes: basking, whale, and white sharks.  For government and NGO proponents alike, the 2013 decisions represent triumph over tough, long-standing opposition to CITES action for commercially valuable marine species.

The year got even better for oceanic whitetip sharks in May when the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) accepted an EU proposal to ban retention in high seas tuna fisheries. As similar measures had already been adopted by all the other regional tuna commissions, this decision closed the gap and made this species the world’s most protected shark in terms of internationally agreed fishing measures.  As with other international agreements, however, effectiveness depends on proper implementation by member countries.

There was also more good news in 2013 for porbeagle sharks, at least for those in the North Atlantic. The US quota was set at zero due to previous overages, EU international and domestic protections remained in place and in December were extended into 2014.  There is even talk that Canada is phasing out its directed porbeagle fishery, although retained bycatch from this depleted population remains a concern.

For the large hammerhead species, in addition to the CITES measures, new catch limits for US Atlantic fisheries were introduced in 2013, aimed at rebuilding scalloped hammerheads within 10 years.

Whale sharks, listed under CITES Appendix II in 2002, also got a boost in 2013 as both the IOTC and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) agreed to follow the lead of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) by prohibiting fishermen from intentionally setting purse seine nets around them (as they tend to attract fish), and taking steps to minimize the mortality associated with accidental capture.

THE DOWNS

Even though there has yet to be a body count, the impending large shark cull announced in December 2013 by the Western Australian government came as a real blow to conservationists, from animal welfare advocates to marine scientists (particularly given Australia’s long history as a shark conservation champion).  Experts have warned that such a strategy will be ineffective for reducing negative interactions with people, as well as damaging from an ecological standpoint.  Perhaps the upside to this unfortunate situation is that it has gained massive media attention and those committed to reversing the policy have strong support from a growing number of people from around the world.

Unfortunately, global concern has not been nearly as high for the equally ill-advised decision of the US Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in May to further relax an already weak US Atlantic coastal state shark finning ban. The full debate has been posted, verbatim.

GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS

While a huge chunk of the year’s social media and press attention was focused on satisfaction over bans on shark fin soup and shark fin transport, as well as dismay over problems implementing bans on shark fins in several US states (met with differing opinions), there were also significant developments related to bans on the practice of shark finning (a different thing, ICYMI).  Most notably, the shark fishing powers of the EU and India both mandated in 2013 that sharks be landed with fins naturally attached.  Such a policy is widely regarded as by far the most reliable method for enforcing finning bans.

The EU has also begun proposing stronger international finning bans with fins attached rules through the Regional Fishery Management Organizations (RFMOs), in most cases joining forces with the US, which has been urging such improvements for years. This represents a significant shift as the EU was responsible for weakening the first international finning ban (from what the US proposed by insisting on a high fin-to-carcass ratio) and not long ago was a vocal opponent to change. So far, all of the fins-attached proposals at RFMO meetings have been defeated, primarily due to opposition from Asian countries, but momentum for ending at-sea fin removal is growing.  At the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) in November, a long-standing fins-attached proposal from the US, Belize, and Brazil gained seven new co-sponsors.

Of the RFMOs, ICCAT has the most shark conservation measures, but did the least for sharks in 2013.  While helping whale sharks, the IOTC and the IATTC rejected EU proposals to protect hammerheads.  The IOTC also opted not to take proposed action on silky sharks, but this species was slated for protection at the December meeting of the WCPFC (although several other shark measures failed).

A proposal to revise chondrichthyan fisheries management in New Zealand was met with varying reactions from conservationists.  Most are pleased by the centerpiece: a declaration of the intention to extend a national ban on finning live sharks to dead sharks as well.  At the same time, the prolonged, two-year implementation period and consideration of a complicated and out-dated fin-to-carcass weight ratio were disheartening to many.

Closer to (my) home, there were significant developments for the Northwest Atlantic skate fishery (currently the largest US elasmobranch fishery by volume).  The bad news is that winter skate – the main species used for wing meat – is once again being overfished (after some considerable rebuilding). The good news is that fishery managers recently agreed to do away with the option to record skates as “unclassified” species, which should yield sorely needed data for improving population assessments.

COMING UP IN 2014:

The New Year offers tremendous promise for improving the status of elasmobranchs and rules on their use.  As the CITES measures agreed in March 2013 become effective in September 2014, scores of governments and NGOs, in cooperation with the CITES Secretariat, are already hard at work with efforts to ensure timely and proper implementation of CITES requirements.

Another global wildlife treaty relevant to sharks — the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) — is coming into sharper focus as the next Conference of the Parties (CoP) will take place in November 2014. The CMS CoP brings opportunities to both list additional elasmobranch species and to spark action under the CMS Memorandum of Understanding for Migratory Sharks.

My IUCN Shark Specialist Group colleagues and I will devote much of our energy in 2014 to the launch and promotion of a new Global Strategy for Sawfish Conservation, the result of extensive consultation with experts.  Stay tuned for news early in the year.

Many international NGOs will continue throughout 2014 to press the RFMOs for additional shark conservation measures and stronger finning bans.  While protecting the most threatened species taken in tuna fisheries is urgent, it’s also essential to start setting international limits on the sharks of the greatest commercial interest on the high seas, particularly blue and mako sharks.  The only RFMO elasmobranch quotas so far apply to skates, and the 10 year anniversary of the skate catch limit set by the Northwest Atlantic Fishery Organization (NAFO) provides a golden opportunity to finally bring it down to scientifically advised levels.

While the EU has been increasingly active in pushing shark proposals at RFMOs, they actually don’t limit catches of most major commercial shark species taken from their own waters (since closing fisheries for spiny dogfish and porbeagle).  In 2014, we’re sure to see greater focus on the lack of limits for European sharks, such as smoothhounds, makos, catsharks, blue sharks, etc.

Down under, efforts to prevent West Australian shark culling and effectively end finning of dead sharks in New Zealand are likely to intensify in 2014.

Back in the US, there is also plenty of work to do, especially along the east coast. The long awaited population assessment for targeted yet unprotected smoothhounds (also known as smooth dogfish) is scheduled for 2014. Because this is a relatively prolific species, there could be good news in terms of hope for a sustainable fishery, but allowing unlimited landings to go on is unacceptably risky.

Unfortunately assessments and catch limits won’t solve all the problems for the underappreciated smoothhounds of the US Atlantic.  The federal government has yet to propose specific regulations to address exceptionally confusing text specific to this species that was set forth (ironically) in the Shark Conservation Act back in 2010, and suggests rules to prevent finning could be relaxed in parts of the Atlantic.

We’re hoping that 2014 brings greater attention to the conservation needs of America’s “flat sharks,” particularly in the form of initial safeguards for cownose rays.  This especially vulnerable species continues to be promoted as seafood, and was even featured in a recent episode of Bizarre Foods America.  The focus for conservation efforts continues to be Virginia.

The year will also bring debate on amendments to the New England Council’s Skate management plan.  Changes are needed to end overfishing of winter skates (see above) and to enhance recovery of thorny skates, which were granted prohibited species status a decade ago but remain at seriously low levels.

Another Atlantic elasmobranch whose prohibited status alone is not doing the job is the exceptionally slow growing dusky shark.  The federal government is working on new alternatives to ensure this species’ recovery after 2012 proposals to close bycatch hotspots to longlining and ramp up the large shark minimum size for anglers met with strong opposition.

Both the thorny skate and the dusky shark have been subject to petitions under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), as have several other elasmobranchs. Thorny skate listing was denied, but a decision on the latest dusky shark petition is due out any day now, as is word on listing great hammerhead.  In the meantime, overall funding for ESA activities continues to suffer as the law itself comes under threat.  The elasmobranch most directly hurt by declining ESA funding is the smalltooth sawfish, although scientists and policy experts continue to make the most of available funds to ensure the species continues its climb back from the brink of extinction.

So!  We close another busy year in shark and ray conservation and look forward to fully exploiting opportunities, resources, and partnerships in an effort to end the overexploitation of these valuable yet vulnerable creatures.  As always, concerned citizens can help by spreading the word, asking questions, changing behaviors, donating to conservation groups, and – above all – seizing every occasion to “speak for the sharks.”