With fossil records dating back 400 million years, sharks have outlived the dinosaurs and many other forms of life currently on earth. There are more than 1,000 species of sharks and rays, with new species discovered every year.
Yet these majestic top predators so essential to the natural order of marine ecosystems now face their most severe threat from overfishing. Many species are threatened with extinction, with some families of rays such as sawfishes in particular peril. While sharks and rays have been an irreplaceable resource for coastal communities in the developing world for centuries, this unique balance is in danger of being lost forever.
With our oceans severely degraded, restoring sharks is key to improving the resiliance of these water bodies to climate change. While sharks' diverse range of species adds complexity to our conservation efforts, the dwindling numbers of these amazing creatures from overfishing and demand for their fins and meat increases the urgency of the task. Through our multi-pronged strategies, and guided by the Global Priorities for Conserving Sharks and Rays - A 2015-2025 Strategy, we strive to restore the balance between humans and sharks.
As sharks and rays typically grow slowly, mature late, and produce few young they are particularly susceptible to overfishing, and then slow to recover. The key to fishing sharks and rays sustainably is to keep overall mortality below levels that will allow populations to remain stable or increase.
Shark and rays fisheries can become sustainable through the introduction of strong management incorporating science-based catch limits that take into account the ability of different species to replenish, and their existing conservation status. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified US Atlantic spiny dogfish fishery is one such example. There is a real urgency to improving fisheries management globally given that demand for shark and ray products, notably meat, is growing at a time when so many populations have declined.
Sustainable use is a pragmatic approach to conservation, which combines the need to conserve species and ecosystems, the importance of livelihoods and food security in coastal communities, and the cultural significance of some wildlife products. The need to minimize waste through full utilization of the animals is an integral part of sustainable use, particularly given declining food security. All fisheries should require that require the fins remain attached to the body when sharks are brought to shore.
WWF fully supports the recommendation of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group that sharks and rays assessed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered and Endangered, such as sawfishes, should be protected from fishing. Fishing for other high-risk species, such as those with particularly low rates of reproduction, should not occur unless strong fisheries management is in place.