Oceana, the world’s largest international ocean conservation organization, released a new report today that estimates that more than 1.3 million highly migratory sharks were caught in the Atlantic Ocean during 2008, without international fisheries management. This estimate demonstrates the need for protections of highly migratory sharks at the 17th Special Meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), currently underway in Paris, France.
“Sharks are the elephant in the room,” said Rebecca Greenberg, marine scientist at Oceana. “Too many sharks are being caught in the Atlantic Ocean for ICCAT to pretend there is not a problem. Many shark populations are in much worse shape than other fish species already managed by ICCAT.”
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 72 shark species are listed as “highly migratory” and are therefore designated as requiring management by international bodies. 21 of these species were reported to be caught in ICCAT waters in 2008, representing a catch of more than 65,000 tonnes. Based on the average weight of each species caught, Oceana estimates this to be more than 1.3 million highly migratory sharks. Of these 21 species, three quarters are classified as threatened with extinction in parts of the Atlantic Ocean, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Yet sharks remain all but unmanaged by ICCAT, with the exception of a weak finning ban and a prohibition on retaining bigeye thresher sharks.
Furthermore, Oceana believes 1.3 million sharks is a gross underestimate of the true mortality. In 2008, 11 out of the 48 countries that participate in ICCAT did not report any shark catches and current shark catch data in ICCAT is generally acknowledged to be inadequate at best. In fact, scientific estimates based on Hong Kong shark fin trade data have shown that real shark catches in the Atlantic may be more than three times higher than what is reported to ICCAT.
“Sharks are virtually unmanaged at the international level,” said Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, marine scientist and fisheries campaign manager at Oceana. “ICCAT has a responsibility to protect sharks. It is time to protect our ocean’s top predators.”
Many highly migratory shark populations in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea are significantly overexploited. For example, the North Atlantic population of oceanic whitetips has declined by an estimated 70 percent and hammerheads have declined by more than 99 percent in the Mediterranean. Despite this unacceptable situation, managers have all but ignored their responsibilities to protect sharks.
Oceana is calling on ICCAT to implement the following protections for sharks:
Why Sharks at ICCAT:
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the overarching treaty establishing international maritime law, requires fishing nations to cooperate to ensure the conservation of highly migratory shark species both within and beyond their exclusive economic zones through appropriate international organizations.
With the exception of a weak finning prohibition, these 1.3 million highly migratory sharks were caught freely, subject to no international management measures such as catch limits, size limits, time and area closures, or gear modifications. Although ICCAT Contracting Parties put specific management measures in place in 2009 for one highly migratory shark species — bigeye thresher – catches of the rest of the threatened highly migratory sharks, which account for 99.8 percent of the catches reported in 2008, remain unregulated by ICCAT.
Of particular concern in the Atlantic Ocean are porbeagle sharks (critically endangered in the Northeast Atlantic and endangered in the Northwest Atlantic), oceanic whitetips (vulnerable globally) and scalloped hammerheads (endangered in the Northwest Atlantic and Western Central Atlantic).
Additionally, North Atlantic shortfin makos are being caught in large numbers and ICCAT scientists have noted that the population could be overfished. Shortfin makos are of particular concern because they reproduce late in life, have very few offspring and therefore recover very slowly from overfishing.
Background about Sharks:
Sharks have been swimming the world’s oceans for more than 400 million years – long before the first dinosaurs appeared on land. Sharks can be found in almost every ocean, migrating vast distances through national and international waters.
Sharks play vital roles in maintaining the health of ocean ecosystems, but their populations are under threat from fishing. Sharks are especially vulnerable to pressure from human activities because of their slow growth rate and low reproductive potential. Many shark populations have declined to levels where they are unable to perform their roles as top predators in the ecosystem, causing drastic and possibly irreversible damage to the oceans.
For more information about ICCAT and sharks, and for downloadable images, please visit www.oceana.org/ICCAT.