Abstract: Over the last two decades, global efforts to protect sharks, recognized as highly threatened wildlife, have faced challenges. A study reveals that despite increased scrutiny and regulatory measures, shark fishing mortality rose from 76 to 80 million between 2012 and 2019, with 25 million belonging to threatened species. While coastal waters experienced a 4% increase, pelagic fisheries, especially in the Atlantic and Western Pacific, saw a 7% decrease. Widespread regulations against shark finning showed limited effectiveness, but regional fishing bans demonstrated some success. The study calls for evidence-based solutions to counter the ongoing overexploitation of sharks.
Sharks threatened by increased shark fishing
The alarming rise in shark mortality, despite global efforts to protect these ocean predators, is revealed in a study published in the journal Science. Governments worldwide have mobilized to save sharks, crucial marine predators threatened by overfishing, with the apex fish playing a vital role in marine ecosystems that millions rely on for sustenance. However, the study, spanning 2012 to 2019, indicates that the number of sharks killed annually by fishing has surged from 76 million to 80 million, even amid the implementation of regulations. This concerning trend has raised fears about the potential loss of a key species influencing marine ecosystems.
"Sharks hold a pivotal position in ecosystems and food chains, acting as indicator species signaling ecological issues." Brendon, Director of Shark Guardian
Fig. 1. Global regulatory landscape.
(A and B) Increasing trends in number of shark fishing and finning regulations adopted (A) internationally through tuna regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) and (B) nationally through domestic laws and policies. Number of CITES-listed threatened shark species additionally regulated through international trade restrictions are superimposed as red lines. New listings introduced in 2022 are not yet fully implemented. (C) Trends in tuna fisheries involved with MSC ecocertification and related fishery improvement projects (FIPs). (D) Spatial pattern of active shark regulations in 2022. WCPFC, Western & Central Pacific Fisheries Commission; IATTC, Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission; ICCAT, International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas; IOTC, Indian Ocean Tuna Commission.
The study identifies some regulations that prove effective in protecting sharks, offering a glimmer of hope. However, time is running out, with a third of shark species facing the threat of extinction, necessitating swift implementation of successful protective measures.
The notorious practice of 'finning,' wherein fishing boats harvest shark fins for delicacies like shark fin soup, has been a significant concern. Despite regulations in over 90 countries restricting fin removal and requiring fishers to bring the entire shark ashore, the study finds that these rules may not be entirely effective. The analysis of an estimated 1.1 billion sharks caught globally over an eight-year period reveals that restrictions on finning alone are inadequate in reducing overall shark mortality. In some cases, these rules may inadvertently contribute to more sharks dying, as fishers bring whole sharks, fins intact, to shore for profit.
Shark Fishing Hotspots
Hot spots for shark mortality include Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia, Mauritania, and Somalia. Global demand for shark products is a primary driver of their decline.
Fig. 2. Global patterns of shark fishing mortality.
Shown are average annual mortalities per 1° by 1° grid cell from 2016 to 2018 for (A) all sharks, (B) threatened species (IUCN critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable), (C) silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis), and (D) hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna spp.). (E) Relative trend in annual mortality (percent increase or decrease) for all sharks from 2012 to 2019. (F) Fishing gear type that dominates shark mortality for each cell (further details about fishing gear categories are shown in table S19).
Certainly, shark meat is surreptitiously making its way into meals, unbeknownst to diners. Earlier studies uncovered the presence of spiny dogfish, a shark species facing threats, in approximately 90% of samples obtained from fish-and-chips takeout establishments in southern England.
What is working
Encouragingly, complete bans on shark fishing, not just finning, over large ocean areas emerge as the most effective regulations, reducing overall mortality by nearly 40%. Governments with higher accountability to citizens, as assessed by the World Bank, experience fewer shark deaths due to fishing in their waters. Notable shark sanctuaries, like the Maldives and the Bahamas, showcase successful models for protecting these predators, contributing to thriving dive tourism industries. Other regions, including Palau and the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in the United States, also serve as crucial havens for sharks. A positive outlook exists, even in Indonesia's Raja Ampat archipelago. Despite these bright spots, urgent and widespread measures are essential to ensure the survival of sharks and the health of marine ecosystems globally.
Fig. 4. Expert perceptions on shark fishing and regulation.
(A) Geographical location of 22 regional experts interviewed for this study. (B) Interviewee perceptions on current trends in shark finning (left) and shark mortality (right). (C) Interviewee perceptions on effective (in boldface) and insufficient regulatory and market measures affecting trends in shark finning and mortality (see tables S11 to S13 for detailed interview data summaries).