Sharks and rays in sharp decline

Posted: 20 February 2006

Expert findings show sharks and rays are now amongst Europe's most threatened animals as more are added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

The number of species of sharks and rays on the Red List will increase based on the findings of a three-day meeting of experts that examined the conservation status of the species in the Northeast Atlantic and Mediterranean waters.

This confirms the widely-accepted notion that slow-growing sharks and rays are exceptionally vulnerable to over-fishing, and that deep-water species are being depleted at an alarming rate.

Angelsharks
Angelsharks
Angel sharks (Squatina squatina) have almost vanished from European seas. Photo © Simon Rogerson/IUCN
Some formerly important commercial species are now so rare that they are no longer being sought by fishermen, but their risk of extinction is still rising because of continued incidental capture in fisheries for more abundant species. This situation is exacerbated by the lack of shark fisheries management in European waters.

"Sharks and rays are amongst the most threatened animal groups in the UK today. I welcome the development of a Red List baseline, against which to monitor the hoped-for changes in their status that should arise from increased awareness of their plight," said Dr Malcolm Vincent, Director of Science for the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

Angel sharks

Nearly 100 species of sharks and rays were evaluated against the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria. The IUCN Shark Specialist Group, which convened the meeting, will compile these assessments for a regional report that will include recommendations for conservation action.

Proposed additions to the Red List include three species of angel sharks, two species of skates, and several species of deep-water sharks, all of which are considered Critically Endangered in the region, as well as two species of coastal ray, now considered Endangered. The species found to be at lowest risk were generally small and fast-growing coastal species, like cuckoo ray and lesser-spotted catshark, and very deep ocean species that are still beyond the reach of today's fishing fleets.

Angel sharks, formerly abundant large coastal sharks, were once a common sight in fish markets, but have largely vanished, almost unnoticed, from the European seas that are their world stronghold.

"Now officially declared extinct in the North Sea by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (fisheries advisers to European countries), the angel shark was nominated in 2001 for strict legal protection in British waters, but we are still waiting for government action on this proposal," said Sarah Fowler, Co-Chair of the Shark Specialist Group. "Workshop participants emphasised the urgency of protecting this, and many other imperilled species."

Three species of deep-water sharks, taken as incidental catch in fisheries and increasingly targeted for their meat and rich liver oil, were assessed as threatened. A population decline of 80-95 per cent prompted a Critically Endangered classification for the region's deep-water gulper shark.

"These exceptionally slow-growing sharks are simply not biologically equipped to withstand such intense fishing pressure," said Tom Blasdale, Marine Species Adviser at the JNCC. "We welcome recent European Union action to manage deep-water gillnet fisheries, but similar measures are still urgently needed to protect deep-water sharks taken by trawls and longlines."

Little conservation

The shortfin mako shark, a favourite target of commercial and recreational fishermen around the world, was proposed as Vulnerable in the Northeast Atlantic and Critically Endangered in the Mediterranean Sea.

"This wide-ranging species is increasingly the target of fisheries and yet lacks any type of protective measures in this region," warned Alen Soldo of the Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries in Croatia. "Of particular concern are mako sharks in the Mediterranean, where our findings revealed ongoing fishing pressure well beyond the reproductive capacity of the species."

In contrast to similar workshops held in North America, South Africa, and Australia, the workshop yielded little if any good news, due largely to the lack of shark and ray conservation measures in this region.

Note: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the world's most authoritative guide to the status of biological diversity. The workshop was the eighth in a global series to assess all of the world's shark and ray species and develop regional conservation priorities. Resulting Red List proposals are preliminary until accepted by the global Shark Specialist Group network.