Year of the sharks | WWF

Year of the sharks

Posted on 29 June 2014    
A Shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus) off the coast of California, United States.
Shark! There is no other animal whose name alone produces fear and awe in equal measure. There is also no other animal that is as synonymous with the culture and heritage of the South Pacific.

From Dakuwaqa, the Shark God of Fiji, to the shark legends of the Cook Islands and Samoa, sharks are not just predators from the sea, but are interwoven in the region’s history. Yet, despite their significance, sharks, and their close cousins the rays, are in deep trouble.

Earlier this year a little known report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was released to the public. The report, a collaboration of 302 experts from 64 different countries contains the most up-to-date assessments of over a thousand species of sharks & rays. The contents of the report made for grim reading. The study concluded that a quarter of all shark and ray species are threatened with extinction.

Overfishing has been identified as the key driver for this alarming trend. Unintentionally caught sharks and rays, so called by-catch in offshore fisheries such as tuna, account for much of the depletion. Globally, there is a high demand for shark fins & meat in overseas markets in Asia & Europe. Though estimates for the numbers of sharks taken for their fins vary, a recent independent report guessed they were in the vicinity of 26-73 million, killed each year for their fins.

With the lack of substantive data, it is notoriously difficult to estimate the number of sharks caught and made even more challenging with the small number of vessels with independent on-board observers to verify catch logs.

But yet, despite the gloomy prognosis, there is still hope. This year is already shaping up to be a defining year in shark conservation. In September, five species of sharks and two species of manta rays will be protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This means that the trade in any parts of these species will be severely restricted.

Also, last week, the Fiji government put forward manta rays and the endangered devil rays to be protected under the Convention on Migratory Species. Fiji’s Ministry of Fisheries & Forests and their colleagues in the Department of Environment have stepped up the game in a global way when it comes to protecting endangered species, and their efforts must be applauded.

A number of Pacific Island countries, such as Palau, the Marshall Islands & the Cook Islands have declared their waters as “shark sanctuaries”, with varying degrees of protection for sharks, and increasing numbers of countries are seeking to manage their shark populations sustainably. In November, the Solomon islands government worked with WWF Pacific to explore ways to prevent the over-exploitation of sharks in their waters, which resulted in the Solomon Islands government announcing their intention to draft a National Plan of Action strategy for sharks within their territory. This is a significant step forward and, with assistance from WWF & other regional bodies, will help secure the sustainability of fisheries in Solomon Islands’ waters. The Solomons are following the example of the Cook Islands, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

WWF Pacific is also set to launch the Pacific Shark Heritage Initiative. WWF understands the importance sharks play to the region, and it’s not just about fisheries. Coastal species of sharks play a vital role in keeping the oceans healthy. Recent scientific research from the United States indicates that a loss of sharks from reefs could have a detrimental impact on other fish such as snappers & groupers, fish that many coastal communities use on a daily basis for food.

Sharks are also a major draw for many tourists to the region. Almost every dive operator will tell you that when it comes to getting the majority of dive tourists excited, it is sharks and large mantas that most want to see at some point in their trip. From small reef sharks to larger predators, every sighting is another endorsement for the region as a mecca for divers. And with each tourist comes tourist dollars, helping support local businesses & economies.

In Fiji, the world renowned Beqa lagoon shark dive draws in people from around the world wanting to see large bull sharks and other species swimming on healthy reefs, with money going directly to local communities. There are also a number of unique shark-focussed projects throughout the region allowing volunteers to contribute to the understanding of these animals.

2014 is also the International year of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS). UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said that 2014 “…is an opportunity to appreciate the extraordinary resilience & rich cultural heritage of the people of small island developing states.” WWF’s Pacific Shark Heritage Initiative will certainly aid this, promoting the iconic role of sharks in the South Pacific, assisting small-island countries in managing their precious resources and ensuring the unique marine ecosystems in the region are available to enjoy for many generations to come.

2014 could just turn out to be one that sharks & rays will thank us for.

A Shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus) off the coast of California, United States.
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