5 simple things you can do to improve U.S. shark and ray management

Sonja Fordham President, Shark Advocates International

Sonja Fordham
President, Shark Advocates International

Sonja 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.

Most Americans by now must know it’s Shark Week, but did you know that the Discovery Channel headquarters are mere steps from the headquarters of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and that right now — and rather often — fishery managers in that NMFS building are soliciting comments on US shark fishing rules?

Photo by Sonja Fordham

Photo by Sonja Fordham

Shark Week is winding down just as several key opportunities to help US sharks are being announced. Aside from controversy over some programming, other shows, the associated press coverage, and the veritable social media frenzy have sparked a lot of concern for sharks, and sent many Americans on a hunt for things that they can do to help. I welcome that interest and am taking the opportunity to make a plea for some unique, hand-crafted comments and personalized testimony about timely policies for several particularly deserving Atlantic shark and ray species.

Taking these actions won’t be quite as easy as pushing a button on an automatic petition, but I believe – because of the relatively low profile of these species and the increased influence of original comments – that they can truly make a difference. If heeded, your advice can lead not only to better conservation of US shark and ray species, but also to better examples for other countries to follow. Here goes (see the hyperlinks for more information and contact details):

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First systematic threat analysis reveals that 1/4 of sharks, rays, and chimaeras are threatened with extinction

It took a team of over 300 scientists nearly two decades, but the first systematic analysis of the conservation status of chondrichthyans (sharks, rays and chimaeras) has been completed. The results, published today (open access) in a paper titled “Extinction risk and conservation of the world’s sharks and rays,” are chilling.

“Our unprecedented analysis shows that sharks and their relatives – which make up one of the earth’s oldest and most ecologically diverse groups of animals  —  are facing an alarmingly elevated risk of extinction,” said Dr. Nick Dulvy, IUCN SSG Co-Chair and Professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

As of the writing of this paper, the IUCN Shark Specialist Group recognized 1,041 species of chondrichthyans. However,  a new species is described, on average, every two or three weeks! Out of these 1,041 species of chondrichthyans, approximately one in four are considered “Threatened” by IUCN Red List criteria;  113 species are Vulnerable, 43 are Endangered, and 25 species are Critically Endangered. 487 species are considered Data Deficient, but the IUCN Shark Specialist Group estimates that 68 of them are likely to be Threatened as well! Most alarmingly, only 23% of known chondrichthyan species are considered Least Concern, the lowest percentage out of any group of vertebrates on land or sea!

A hierarchy of IUCN Red List categories. Note that "Threatened" includes Vulnerable, Endangered, and Critically Endangered

A hierarchy of IUCN Red List categories. Note that “Threatened” includes Vulnerable, Endangered, and Critically Endangered

One of the two main factors influencing Threatened status is the size of the animal. Larger bodied species are sensitive to overfishing because they typically have a life history with slow growth, late age at maturity, and relatively few offspring. Additionally, living in coastal habitats (in other words, close to humans) makes a species more likely to be Threatened.

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3 sharks that were on twitter before being a shark on twitter was cool

Recent plans in Western Australia to place acoustic tags in sharks and have them tweet their location when they approach a beach have resulted in a sharknado of media coverage. The plan has been covered by internet technology news giant Mashable, Fox News, NPR news, Popular Science, and NBC news (which, with “sharks with frickin’ tweets,” has what I believe to be the best headline. That one also interviews me.) When a tagged shark approaches the beach, a tweet like this results:

tweet

 

I can understand why a project involving both sharks and twitter caught the media’s eye… and why about a billion of you e-mailed or tweeted the news to me. However, these aren’t the first sharks to be on twitter!

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13 amazing things scientists discovered about sharks in 2013

Other than a certain week in August whose name we shall not speak here, 2013 was a great year for both shark science and the communication of that shark science. There were many important and fascinating discoveries, and many of the world’s top media outlets covered them. Presented here is a list of 13 amazing scientific discoveries made in 2013, in no particular ranking order. To make the list, research must have been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal in 2013, and someone else other than me must have also thought it was awesome (i.e. it received mainstream media or blog coverage). In the interest of objectivity, I did not include any papers that I or my lab were directly involved with. Whenever possible, I’ve linked to an accessible version of the paper.

 

1) A two-headed bull shark!

From Wagner et al. 2013

From Wagner et al. 2013

 

Citation: Wagner, CM, Rice, PH, and Pease, AP 2013. First record of dicephalia in a bull shark Carcharhinus leucas foetus from the Gulf of Mexico. Journal of Fish Biology 82: 1419-1422.

Brief description: Researchers presented the first case of a bull shark embryo with 2 heads (the mother was caught by a Florida fishermen). In response to the most common question I received about this study, no, this animal would not have survived to adulthood.  While this is a cool discovery, the broader significance is somewhat minimal. As I told science writer Douglas Main in an interview about a similar study, “There have been a number of reports of deformed shark and ray embryos in recent years— two heads, one eye, etc. There’s no evidence to suggest these defects represent a new phenomenon or that they are harmful to shark populations as a whole.”

Media coverage highlights: A figure from this study was named one of the coolest science photos of the year by the International Science Times. It was also covered by National Geographic, the Guardian, and TIME magazine. Read More

A Shark Week 2013 retrospective…with memes!

davesquare

As Shark Week 2013 comes to a close, I wanted to take a look back at which part of my outreach strategy worked (and didn’t work), as well as what I liked and disliked about Shark Week as a whole. Ever since my “15 important shark conservation and management terms explained with memes” post, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to incorporate more internet humor into a blog post, so here goes…

While this Shark Week allowed scientists  like myself to reach the public on a large scale, most of the content was...troubling.

While this Shark Week allowed scientists like myself to reach the public on a large scale, most of the content was…troubling.

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Tweets from the American Elasmobranch Society: Ecology and Conservation

davesquareAESlogoThe American Elasmobranch Societyis a non-profit professional organization of shark, ray, skate, and chimaera scientists. Each year, AES holds an annual conference in a different North American city where members meet and present their research. The 2013 meeting took place in Albuquerque, New Mexico from July 10-15th. The full schedule of talks (including other societies participating in the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists) can be found here.

Presented below are selected tweets from the Ecology and Conservation sessions.

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15 important shark conservation and management terms explained with memes

davesquare

inigo-montoya-you-keep-using-that-word-i-dont-think-it-means-what-you-th-3b4b2920-sz625x625-animateIf 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.

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A guide to following shark conservation proposals at CITES on twitter

davesquare

CITES logoRight now, delegates from 178 countries are meeting in Bangkok, Thailand to discuss a variety of conservation proposals. At the 16th CITES Conference of the Parties, among many other worthy topics, delegates will be debating a record-number of shark and ray proposals. These include iconic species like hammerhead sharks (3 species) and manta rays (2 species), as well as oceanic whitetip sharks, porbeagle sharks, and three species of freshwater stingray.

In addition to a record-number of shark and ray proposals, this year’s Conference of the Parties also has a record-number of attendees live-tweeting the meeting.Those of you who follow me on twitter know that I’ve been re-tweeting lots of information about CITES and these shark conservation proposals. In case you want to get the information directly from the source, I’ve prepared a guide to following along with the meeting on twitter.

1) Follow #CITES . Though this hashtag isn’t exclusively focused on sharks (and isn’t exclusively in English), there’s a lot of good information being shared.

2) Follow #Cites4Sharks . Also use this hashtag if you’re sharing any relevant links or information.

3) Follow the 13 accounts I’ve highlighted below (and let me know in the comments if you have suggestions for any accounts I should add to the list):

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The ten best and worst events in shark fisheries management of 2012

Sonja FordhamPresident, 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.


The last twelve months added up to another exciting year in shark and ray conservation policy.  We certainly saw and should herald a lot of great progress in 2012.  I think it’s also important to acknowledge what went wrong so we know where we stand and how best to move forward.  I’ve taken a look back and compiled a top ten list of what I see as the best and worst events in shark fisheries management for 2012, based on my work at Shark Advocates International.  I’m starting with the low points, but keep reading!  It ends on a high note.

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13 wrong things about sharks that conservation advocates should stop saying in 2013 (and what they should say instead)

davesquare

While the rest of the scientific and management community and I are grateful for the passionate support of many shark conservation advocates, passion is no substitute for knowledge and accuracy.  Some conservation issues are a matter of opinion and can (and should) be reasonably be discussed by people with different views, but many others are a matter of fact. Presented here, in no particular order, are 13  incorrect statements and arguments commonly made by well-intentioned but uninformed shark conservation advocates, along with the reality of the situation.

From MemeGenerator.net

From MemeGenerator.net

1) “Shark finning” is synonymous and interchangeable with “the global shark fin trade.” Shark finning is a specific fishing method. It is not the only way to catch sharks, and it is not the only way to provide shark fins for the global fin trade. Stopping shark finning is a worthy goal (that has largely been accomplished already *) because it is a wasteful and brutal fishing method that complicates management, but stopping shark finning does not stop the global shark fin trade. Many people calling for a ban on finning really seem to want no shark fishing and no fin trade of any kind (a viewpoint I disagree with, but regardless, proper terminology matters). For more on the difference between shark fishing and shark finning, see this post from June 2012.

2) 100 million sharks a year are killed for their fins. The origin of this number is still debated, but it was popularized by Sharkwater. While we will likely never know exactly how many sharks are “killed for their fins”, the best scientific estimate of the scope of the fin trade we have comes from a 2006 paper by Dr. Shelley Clarke. She found that the fins of between 26 and 73 million sharks end up in the fin trade each year, with a simulation average of 38 million.  Dr. Clarke wrote an essay for SeaWeb on the misuse of her work, which is worth a read.

3) 1 in 3 species of sharks face extinction. This one is actually relatively close to accurate, and can be fixed with the addition of just two words. An IUCN Shark Specialist Group report found that 1 in 3 species of “open ocean” sharks are Threatened with extinction (Threatened means Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered according to IUCN Red List standards). 1 in 6 species of shark, skate, ray, or chimera are Threatened- while still a troubling number indicative of a very bad situation, it’s half as bad as claimed by many advocates. Also, please note that I included skates and rays, which are similarly threatened but often ignored by conservation advocates (with one notable exception from 2012).

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