One of the most common questions I get during my “ask me anything” sessions on twitter is “which species of sharks are the most endangered?” Whenever I can’t completely answer a question in a single tweet, I like to link to more information from a reliable source.
However, I’ve struggled to easily answer this question with a link, because much of the information out there about this particular question is incomplete, misleading, or just wrong. Several online lists of the most endangered species of sharks* don’t actually include the most endangered species of sharks. Many of these lists could be re-titled as “the conservation status of some species of sharks I’ve heard of and could easily find pictures of” or “some random information I heard out of context about shark conservation.” Since there isn’t an easily accessible source of accurate information about this important shark science and conservation topic, I’ll make one myself. ( I should note here that I am referring only to true sharks, not to other chondrichthyans, even though other chondrichthyans in many cases face similar or worse threats. )
Last month, a team of marine scientists (which included Andrew and I) published a paper pointing out that intentionally killing the largest and most fecund members of IUCN Red List Threatened species is not a good thing and could be easily stopped (by stopping record awards entirely for these species or moving to a catch and release model)
Our recommendations were not universally supported by scientists, and we received criticism from respected colleagues largely in the form of “this isn’t a particularly big problem, no serious people care about it.” There was also an official response from the IGFA to this effect, which we issued an official response to. Sure. It isn’t the biggest problem in the world, but it is a problem. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a conservation problem that’s easier to solve.
A petition created by the Blue Planet Society based on our recommendations has, as of this writing, surpassed 6,000 signatures from all over the world, including many from scientists, fisherman and professional conservation activists. The paper has also been widely discussed on social media
Presented here are some quotes from scientists, fishermen and conservationists supporting our recommendations. While this support does not inherently mean that the issues we raise are important, it certainly shows that lots of serious people care about it.
A giant pangasius, one of the Endangered species of fish that is targeted by trophy fishermen. Photo by user GV_Fishing, WikiMedia Commons
Andrew and I (along with several co-authors) have a new paper out in the journal Marine Policy entitled “Trophy Fishing for Species Threatened with Extinction: A way Forward Based on a History of Conservation.” You can read the paper here, and view the official press release here (will be up soon) .
We believe that this is an important topic that does not get enough attention, and we wrote the paper to review the scope of the problem, propose an easily achievable solution, and facilitate a long overdue discussion. Although we intentionally wrote the paper to be accessible to anyone, this blog post serves to explain the concepts and issues in the paper even further. We are happy to answer any questions people have about the paper, just ask them in the comments section below.
If interested citizens want to get involved in conservation and management policy, it’s absolutely vital to use proper terminology. The policy world can be full of confusing jargon, but there are few ways to discredit yourself in the eyes of decision makers as quickly as using a critical term incorrectly. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for a decision maker’s response to a petition or public comment to consist entirely of correcting inaccurate terminology, if a response is issued at all. There are well over 100 acronyms and terms that I’ve seen regularly used, but in the interest of brevity, I’ve selected what I believe to be the 15 most important terms that I’ve seen people repeatedly use incorrectly.
For each term, I’ve provided a definition from a scientific paper or technical report whenever possible. I have also provided some additional explanation in my own words, and some assistance from familiar memes. Whenever possible, I’ve linked to blog posts, articles, or websites that provide even more information. Most of these terms are broadly applicable to fisheries management policy, but some are specific to shark fisheries. It is not my intention with this post to strongly advocate for or against any specific policy (I do plenty of that with other posts), but to make sure everyone is speaking the same language.
Manta rays are true gentle giants; though they can grow more than 20 feet wide from wingtip to wingtip, they eat only plankton. Swimming with these animals is a rare thrill for SCUBA divers, and manta-viewing ecotourism is worth over $100 million each year. Like many species of sharks, manta rays grow slowly and reproduce rarely. According to Dr. Nick Dulvy of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, ” they give birth to an average of one offspring every two years…they are a long-lived species with little capacity to cope with modern fishing methods.” They also migrate across huge distances, regularly crossing between national boundaries and spending much of their time on the high seas, making management difficult.
Photo credit: David Shiffman (Georgia Aquarium)
Although their biology cannot support a large-scale fishery and their behavior makes any fishery inherently difficult to manage, manta rays are very much in demand. At least part of them is: their gill rakers. According to Lucy Harrison, program officer for the IUCN Shark Specialist group, “Increasing demand for these fishes’ filter-feeding system for traditional Chinese medicinal purposes, especially in Hong Kong, is rapidly driving down their population everywhere.”
By some measures, the global population of manta rays has declined by more than 30% in recent decades, with some local populations facing much larger declines. Earlier this week, an IUCN Shark Specialist Group team led by Andrea Marshall has concluded that both species of manta ray (the giant manta Manta birostris and the reef manta Manta alfredi) should be declared Vulnerable* to extinction.
The IUCN Shark Specialist Group recommends that several steps be taken to protect mantas from further population declines. These include discussing the value of international conservation treaties, such as CMS and CITES, for both species as well as national-level policy changes in countries that fish for mantas. Some of these proposals may benefit from the support of the online conservation community, so please stay tuned! I’ll continue to report on these suggested policies as they moves forward.
* “Vulnerable” in the context of an IUCN Red List status should be capitalized, as should other IUCN Red List statuses. For more information on what “Vulnerable” means, please visit the Red List website here.
Earth is facing a biodiversity crisis so severe that many conservation scientists refer to it as a mass extinction event. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a professional network of 11,000 volunteer scientists belonging to more than 1,000 government and NGO agencies in 160 countries, evaluates species worldwide and determines their risk of extinction. This Red List, which ranks species in increasing risk of extinction – Least Concern, Near Threatened, Conservation Dependent, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild, and Extinct – is described as “the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of plant and animal species”.
Statistics from the Red List are terrifying. One fifth of all evaluated vertebrate species are threatened with extinction, including 12% of birds, 21% of mammals, 30% of amphibians, and 26% of fish. On average, fifty species of amphibians, birds, and mammals move measurably closer to extinction each year. One fifth of the world’s plant species are in danger of extinction. Critical habitat-builders, including 33% of reef building coral species and 14% of seagrass species are in very big trouble.