This month’s reward is the barb from a Pacific Cownose Ray, Rhinoptera steindachneri. This particular specimen is a part of the Texas A&M University Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collection, and was scanned as part of the #ScanAllFishes project!
I reached out to Heather Prestidge and Kevin Conway, curators of the Texas A&M collection. They told me that this particular specimen was collected in 1993 by John McEachran (author of the multi-volume “fishes of the Gulf of Mexico“) and Janine Caira (now a parasitologist at UConn). It was collected in Baja California, Mexico. Heather was pleased to learn that I was using their specimen for this project, and said “our specimens have an unlimited number of uses even after their primary project!”
Here’s a picture of another specimen of the same species from this collection, you can see why they’re sometimes called “Golden Cownose Rays”.
“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.
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!
At the 2nd International Marine Conservation Congress, Dr. Nick Dulvy and the IUCN Shark Specialist Group organized a special symposium called “Securing the Conservation of Sharks and Rays”. This symposium featured leading scientists, international policy experts, the founder of a creative non-profit, a National Geographic conservation photographer… and me. It was, without a doubt, the greatest professional honor of my (admittedly brief so far) career.
Later today, the annual meeting of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) begins in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The marine conservation world should pay close attention. NAFO made history in 2004 by becoming the first regional fisheries management organization to set a shared quota for a shark, skate, or ray fishery, but the future of that legacy is in question.
The Largetooth Sawfish (Pristis perotteti) is about to become the second elasmobranch protected by the Endangered Species Act, a welcome step in the conservation of these animals. In addition to the slow growth, low number of offspring, and relatively late maturity which characterizes most elasmobranchs, another biological feature contributes to sawfish being “among the most endangered fishes in the world,” according to Shark Advocates International President Sonja Fordham. It’s hard to imagine a biological structure that can get more thoroughly entangled in fishing nets than the “saw” on their rostrum, and bycatch is one of the leading causes of population decline in this group of animals. Additionally, the saw used to be a part of the souvenir trade.
Last week, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission held their annual meeting in Sri Lanka. As one of the few international fisheries policy organizations in the region, the IOTC is also responsible for management of billfish and sharks. Several new shark conservation policies were proposed this year. These included species-specific protections for hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks, closing loopholes in existing policies that ban finning sharks and discarding the bodies at sea, and requiring fishermen to collect and report more types of data on their shark bycatch. All of these proposals were rejected.
Shark expert Sonja Fordham, President of the new conservation organization Shark Advocates International, will be speaking at a “Shark Salon” in San Francisco on Tuesday. At the Salon, Sonja will answer people’s questions about sharks and tell entertaining stories from her life as a conservationist and scientist. She is asking for a $25 donation to help raise money for Shark Advocates International, but anyone is welcome to come. Please click here to learn more about the event and to RSVP.