Pacific spearheading global conservation efforts for sharks and rays

Sharks are iconic in the cultures, beliefs and traditions of Pacific people. Their sense of identity of place is reinforced through totems. From Kiribati, Solomon Islands to Fiji and across the Pacific, shark legends and tales make up the rich cultural fabric that is their heritage.

Sharks and their close relatives, the rays, are also just as important as well for food security, by maintaining the healthy reef systems so many Pacific peoples rely on for protein and income.

However, despite this cultural and economic value, some species are facing extinction and these threats stem from several factors.

While there are 1,250 diverse species of sharks and rays, (with new ones still being discovered quite regularly), sharks are particularly vulnerable to the threats posed by humans. They reproduce slowly, they are slow to reach sexual maturity and have low reproduction rates. As an extreme case is the Greenland shark that can live up to 400 years and doesn’t reach sexual maturity until it is 150 years old. Sharks also average between 9-12 month pregnancies. The Greeneye Dogfish has the longest recorded pregnancy at 31 months, with sharks known to reproduce every one to two years.

Tens of millions of sharks are killed each year and many populations continue to decline at an alarming rate.

But by far the biggest threat to sharks and rays is overfishing, which has driven several species to close to extinction. Other species are on the verge of disappearing forever, as indicated by the IUCN Red List of Threatened and Endangered Species.

It is conservatively estimated that each year globally, 100 million sharks are killed in commercial fisheries.

WWF and TRAFFIC, a non-governmental organisation working globally on trade in wild animals and plants in the context of both biodiversity conservation and sustainable development collaborate on a joint global shark and ray conservation programme called Sharks: Restoring the Balance. It is headed by Andy Cornish, who has previously worked for the Department of Fish and Wildlife  Resources in American Samoa. “We’ve focused on three areas; improving management, trying to improve the responsibility of the international trade in shark and ray parts, and on consumption, so trying to reduce unsustainable consumption of shark fin and shark meat,” Cornish said.

Cornish says while there are some targeted fisheries for sharks, in many cases sharks and rays are part of the intended catch targeting a wider range of species as it happens with gillnet and long line fisheries. Cornish says because management efforts usually centre on “high value” fisheries such as tuna; shark and rays are not as well managed.

“As a result of this almost unregulated fishing, overfishing is widespread and sharks are really in terrible state at the moment. Populations are declining in most of the places where they occur. Since 2014 when we started this programme, things have gotten a lot worse. For example, when we started according to the IUCN Red List, 25 species were critically endangered, that’s one step away from extinction. You need to have populations decline by more than 90% for them to be categorised as critically endangered. Fast forward to the present and we have 42 species that are critically endangered and a whole bunch doing worse than six years ago. This is what we mean when we’re talking about the shark crisis.”

WWF’s work in the region includes advocating for improved management measures at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), and supporting the development of National Plans of Action for sharks (often including Marine Protected Areas) at national levels. It has also worked on responsible shark and ray tourism, releasing a guide to best practice several years ago, and working with tourism operators in Fiji.

WWF-Pacific’s Sustainable Fisheries and Seafood programme manager, Duncan Williams, adds that in the Pacific, WWF have supported the development of a by catch training manual with the Fiji Maritime Academy to ensure crew onboard fishing vessels have a better understanding of shark bycatch issues and how to mitigate this. “We are in the process of developing bycatch awareness and reference materials for fishermen to help reduce the threat of bycatch. More recently, WWF-Pacific has undertaken market surveys in PNG and catch surveys in key shark breeding and nursery areas in Fiji to inform national efforts to better protect, in particular, endangered or threatened species and habitats which are critical for their recovery and long-term sustainability.”

Andrew Paris is a  marine science researcher assisting WWF-Pacific in obtaining data on inshore shark species in Dreketi, Vanua Levu, Fiji. “The research work was the first assessment on the distribution and abundance of shark and ray species along the Dreketi River and estuary,” Paris says. “The area has been known as a hotspot for juvenile shark and ray species by local communities. The study also allowed us to map the areas along the river and estuary most frequented by these species. Vanua Levu is a place known for an intimate relationship with sharks yet there is very little scientific research on these species here.”

The research team has captured species biodata, including species, length, sex and umbilical scar condition. DNA samples were also collected for further analysis on species kinship. 

“It is my hope that the research adds to the growing discourse on the distribution and abundance of sharks in Fiji with a view to emphasise the abundance of sharks and rays in Fiji we have,” Paris said.

“Research in Rewa, Sigatoka, Ba and now Dreketi are showing that certain species of shark and ray are found in high numbers along these estuarine areas. More so for certain species of shark such as the scalloped hammerhead, the great hammerhead and the bull shark which are found to use these sites as pupping grounds. My ultimate goal would be for either the species or for these essential shark and ray habitats to be afforded greater protections and conservation status.”

Cornish says while reef shark populations in the Pacific are in a better state than most parts of the world, thanks in part to large shark sanctuaries in Palau, Cook Islands and elsewhere, oceanic shark species need a lot more attention, and that this should happen at both national and regional levels.

“The oceanic whitetip shark used to be the most common shark species in the open ocean. Their official stock assessment shows that the oceanic whitetips have gone down 95%, they’ve just totally crashed, and it’s mostly due to longline fishing for tuna by the various fleets. The stock assessment itself says that if that situation continues, that species will probably go extinct.

“I don’t think people realize just how bad the situation with some of these shark species is. Some of the Pacific Islands such as Fiji and Palau, have really acted as champions for shark conservation. Palau was the first place to declare a shark sanctuary and to market themselves as the shark diving capital of the world, and they have been enjoying a lot of benefits from that. Fiji, led a group of nations in proposing that the devil rays, which are related to manta rays and are being overfished, be listed on the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix 2.  So there are some good examples of leadership, and I think it will be really good to see some of these Pacific nations really encouraging the WCPFC to get more serious about recovering these really major shark populations at the moment.”

Japan-based Dr. Shelley Clarke has worked with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) to lead assessment for silky and whale sharks. She spent more than three years at the WCPFC working on tuna, shark bycatch, and sea turtle data sharing, research and management initiatives.

In December 2019 the WCPFC member states adopted an updated comprehensive Conservation and Management Measures (CMM) for sharks.  Dr Clarke said the CMM pulls together a number of previously-introduced measures into one package. “Having a streamlined management measure that’s all very clearly laid out in one place and everybody can find, benefits everybody. It promotes understanding and is a good thing.”

Dr Clarke believes a heightened appreciation of the value of sharks could improve their management, commensurate with the way tuna and other target species are understood. “It’s one of the most useful fish that we catch. It can be used for a number of different things, not just luxury food items like fin but it’s very much used in a variety of fish-based products. And so, it’s an important food source and it can also be used for its oil, for its cartilage or its skin, so it’s actually a very important marine resource, and I think, in that sense, we really need to be doing a better job to manage it than we have up until now.”

Dr Clarke said living up to the commitments outlined in the existing measures is now key. “I would start with data provision. For sharks, our data is really so poor, and in fact some of the measures that we’ve adopted actually make the data sets worse. So, when we’re trying to make a science based argument that we need to do something to conserve this species, we’re really just being undermined by the poor quality data and the lack of the data.”

The updated CMM includes a “fins-naturally-attached” policy, which is the most effective way to eliminate shark finning at sea. It will be in place in 2020-2022.

In 2006, the WCPFC adopted its first measure to discourage the removal of fins from sharks at sea. Fishermen know they can get a good price for a fin in the Chinese market, and in order to save space on their boat for more valuable species, they’ll cut the fins off the shark and throw the shark back in the water, either alive or dead. The “fins naturally-attached” means sharks are brought back to land in one piece without their fins cut off. It is intended to discourage targeted shark catch for the sole purpose of obtaining fins, reduces enforcement burden and allows fisheries managers gain a better understanding of the impact that industrial fishing is having on specific shark species.

WWF cautions there is still a way to go. The CMM also includes a set of alternative measures to this policy that member states can implement instead, creating a greater burden on enforcement and monitoring and “likely limiting the policy’s effectiveness”. WCPFC Member states have failed to approve an effective ban on wire traces, which is a proven method for reducing shark mortality. But it acknowledges the commission’s adoption– and if needed, update – of the Shark Safe Release Guidelines to further minimise bycatch-related mortality. A catch and retention ban will remain in place for the oceanic whitetip and silky sharks.

“A lot of work remains to be done to set WCPFC on a path towards responsible shark management. If implemented effectively, the CMM could become a base to build upon for all species. Nonetheless, the CMM in itself does not equate to responsible management, in particular for the already heavily depleted species,” WWF said.  

This content is sponsored by WWF and was produced with their assistance.