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State of the Field: Shark Conservation Policies

Shark populations around the world are crashing. Researchers have reported that many populations have decreased by 90% or more since the 1970’s. The leading causes for these precipitous declines are bycatch, which kills tens of millions of sharks each year, and the shark fin fishery, which kills as many as 73 million sharks each year. In this edition of State of the Field, I will explain what different countries are doing about this problem.

In many parts of the world, it is still legal to cut the fins off of a still-living shark and dump the rest of the animal overboard where it will bleed to death or drown. Other nations have a variety of management policies.

Credit: Fiona Ayerst, Marine Photobank

Some nations, such as Canada, allow finning at sea as long as rest of the animal is brought back to shore as well. This is enforced by weighing the shark carcasses, weighing the fins, and comparing those weights to ensure that the number of fins approximately equals the number of carcasses. According to a newly-passed law, all sharks in the United States must be brought to shore with their fins still attached (with the exception of smooth dogfish, which can be finned at sea if the rest of the carcass is brought to shore as well). Nations including Palau, the Maldives, and Honduras have made fishing for sharks within their territorial waters illegal.

Last week, Guam’s Senate voted unanimously to make the sale, possession, and distribution of shark fins illegal within the jurisdiction of that U.S. territory. This is very similar to a law passed in Hawaii last year, and similar to a law currently being debated in California.

Within the United States, which has some of the strongest conservation laws in the world, relatively few sharks have legal protections. Several sharks in U.S. waters are considered “species of concern“, (including the basking shark, the dusky shark, the porbeagle shark, and the sand tiger shark) but this designation doesn’t result in any automatic legal protection. Only one shark species, the smalltooth sawfish, is actually listed under the endangered species act. A few species, such as the great white shark, have other legal protections in the U.S.

Shark management in the United States is complicated by our use of “shark complexes”, groupings of similar-looking species. Since many species look similar and many fishermen simply list bycatch as “shark”, species-specific management appears impossible for the near future.

As of the year 2000,:

“Of the 125 countries that fish or trade in shark products, only four (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States) have designed management plans for the fisheries…Very limited information is available on the shark fisheries for most countries. The major shark fishing nations of Japan, Taiwan, and Mexico do not keep species specific records of their catches. They instead lump them into groups such as large sharks or rays. The growing Chinese fishing fleet simply lands sharks, but does not report the weight, quantity, or species composition of catches”

Since many sharks don’t stay within national boundaries, international agreements are important. However, they are exceedingly rare. When eight new shark species were proposed for CITES appendix 2 listing at last year’s meeting, none of them received international legal protection. A few shark species presently have CITES appendix I or II protection, including the great white shark, basking shark, whale shark, and several sawfish species. One of the greatest successes in international shark management came last year when the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission made it illegal to catch severely depleted species of thresher sharks. The Atlantic tuna management body (ICCAT) has made similar strides.

As I stated in “The problem, the goal, and how to get there“, I don’t have a problem with sustainable shark fishing and I don’t think that laws as strict as those in Palau are necessary globally. However, the  life-history traits associated with sharks make sustainable fishing difficult, and no shark species can endure the large-scale commercial fishing that presently targets many of them.

We have a long way to go before the current state of shark conservation policies reflects the best available scientific recommendations. The “land fins separately and weigh them” policies that many countries use can be exploited, and most conservationists would prefer a “fins attached” policy worldwide. Nations need to better manage their shark fisheries and better report catch statistics. A serious effort needs to be made to reduce bycatch. Shark catch quotas need to be drastically reduced for most species. Sharks whose populations have drastically declined need strong national and international legal protections.

Though we have a lot of work to do, I’m optimistic. More people know about (and care about) the plight of sharks than ever before. With your help, we can improve this particular State of the Field.