The state of Maryland is proposing new regulations that would, among other things, weaken the state ban on shark finning by allowing fishermen to remove the fins of smoothhound sharks at sea, as long as the ratio of the weight of the fins does not exceed 12% of the ratio of the carcasses. These “fin ratios” are already troublingand ineffective ways to enforce finning bans. Landing sharks with fins naturally attached is considered the best practice for shark fisheries management. A 12% ratio is exceptionally high (3.5-5% are common ratios worldwide) and risks enabling unscrupulous fishermen to remove the fins of not only smoothhound sharks, but other species whose fins could be passed off as such. This makes it harder for managers to track how many sharks of which species are being killed.
Some fishermen claim that smoothhound sharks can’t be landed with fins naturally attached, but this photo from New York challenges that notion. Photo provided anonymously for this post.
Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources is taking public comments on this policy, which means that you can help!
Please send an e-mail to email@example.com by the end of the day on Monday, January 27th containing the following information:
“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
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.
A recent proposal in New Zealand to outlaw shark finning received more than 45,000 public comments from all over the world, a staggering amount of public interest in fisheries policy. This is great news, because though many activists don’t really know what it means, shark finning is a major threat. Shark finning may well be the most brutal and wasteful method of gathering food in the history of human civilization, and New Zealand was one of the few developed nations that still legally allowed any form of the practice. Though there are still some significant issues with New Zealand’s proposal, it was still very exciting to see so much public passion for an issue that few cared about, or even knew about, when I was growing up.
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.
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.”
In 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:
I’ve written in the past about why shark fin bans might not be the best tool for the conservation and management of sharks. Though specific details vary, these so-called “blanket bans” typically make it illegal for anyone to buy, sell, or possess shark fins regardless of the source *. Additionally, to date most of these fin bans have taken place in a few U.S. states and Canadian towns. If the goal of these state-level fin bans is to reduce the supply of fins to the global market, proponents should consider that according to TRAFFIC, more than 95% of the supply of shark products comes from countries outside of the U.S. and Canada. Even if every U.S. state passed a fin ban, it would have a negligible direct impact on global supply. Additionally, the United States has some of the most sustainably managed shark fisheries in the world (hammerhead sharks and a few others are an exception). We want other countries to emulate out management practices, not to remove our management practices from the global marketplace.
If the goal of these local fin bans is to reduce global demand, proponents should consider that the overwhelming majority of the demand for shark fin soup is in China and Southeast Asia, where passing such bans will pose a significant challenge. Some proponents of fin bans say (after the negligible impact on supply and demand is pointed out) that fin bans help with “raising awareness of the problem of overfishing of sharks”. While these fin bans do result in (relatively) positive media coverage for shark conservation, “raising awareness” is not the publicly stated goal of these bans. If your goal is to educate people about a problem, educate people about the problem.
Recently, the United States National Marine Fisheries Service (which, once again, manages some of the most sustainable shark fisheries on Earth) has started to officially speak out against state level fin bans.
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.
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.
After many months of intense attention to advances in international shark conservation policy through CITES and the European Parliament, it’s time to refocus on sharks in my backyard. A potentially terrible shark policy precedent has been brewing through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), and threatens to weaken that body’s coast-wide ban on finning (slicing off a shark’s fins and discarding the body at sea) smoothhounds and other sharks. Help from the concerned public is needed in the final few days of the official public comment for this proposal!
A new study* has estimated that the total number of sharks killed by fisheries each year is between 63 and 273 million, with a average of approximately 100 million.In an interview, lead author Dr. Boris Worm explains the importance of this estimate:
“This is by far the most comprehensive estimate of shark mortality yet,” he said, “because we consider all sources of mortality, from direct fishing, finning, and discard mortality. the estimate was derived by crunching numbers from almost 100 publications on the catches and mortality of sharks.”
Of all the numbers this team crunched, the most important thing to consider is whether the exploitation rate is greater than the rebound rate. In other words, is this level of exploitation more than the populations can recover from? Though many estimates and approximations went into calculating these figures, it seems quite clear that sharks are being harvested at an unsustainable rate.
Last summer, shark conservation got an interesting new voice. Kool Kid Kreyola, a California-based painter and musician, took the ocean twitterverse by storm with “Me and My Shark Fin”. This video, a clever parody of Jay Z and Beyonce’s “Bonnie and Clyde” , told the story of shark fin soup… from the perspective of a shark.
Kreyola agreed to participate in an interview with me. If you have any follow-up questions, please post them in the comments section below, and I’ll make sure that he sees them.