Although international momentum to conserve sharks and rays is growing, species continue declining en masse and receiving insufficient attention. The reality is that current conservation efforts simply cannot keep up with the sheer scale of overfishing that is pushing these animals towards a global extinction crisis. Currently, 37% of all 1,200+ shark and ray species are at risk of extinction, including over 90 that are critically endangered. Tragically, three species may have already gone extinct.
While all the ongoing efforts continue, we need to complement them with new, targeted, scalable approaches to proactively recover depleted populations that can be rapidly deployed for multiple species, in multiple places.
That is why WWF has partnered with other leading shark and ray conservation experts from Elasmo Project, James Cook University, and Wildlife Conservation Society to form the Shark and Ray Recovery Initiative (SARRI). Launched in May 2022, SARRI aims to recover some of the most threatened sharks and rays in their last remaining refuges around the world.
By 2030, SARRI aims to recover at least eight populations of endangered and critically endangered species in some of their last strongholds in the developing world. To have an impact on a global scale, SARRI has been designed to catalyze a much broader wave of recovery efforts beyond the Initiative itself. By 2033, we aim for at least 15 more populations to be recovering through this deliberate ripple-effect.
You may learn more about SARRI on sarri.org.
Up to 100 million sharks and rays are caught each year across the globe, whether on purpose in targeted fisheries or as secondary catch or unintended bycatch, in fisheries targeting other species. Most fisheries where sharks and rays are caught are poorly managed or unmanaged and for example, lack catch limits. As a consequence, these animals often end up being fished faster than they can reproduce. Urgent improvements are needed to reduce illegal, unsustainable, and unregulated practices in existing fisheries that take sharks and rays.
WWF works actively on fisheries management in over 25 different countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Pacific, and Europe. This list includes seven of the biggest shark fishing nations, which collectively land nearly half of all global reported shark and ray catches (2007-2017).
Our fisheries management work encompasses a wide range of approaches. We assist governments with the development of National Plans of Action for Sharks and implementation of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) provions. To protect migratory species and improve cross-border conservation, we also engage in the development of regional action plans, including those in the Coral Triangle, the Northern Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea.
In the high seas, where shark and ray fishing takes place beyond the territorial waters of specific countries, we advocate for improved management and conservation measures by the regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs). These organisations bring fishing nations together to manage and monitor fish stocks and govern fishing in specific regions of the ocean.
To help minimise bycatch, we develop and trial innovative bycatch mitigation solutions such as LED lights or Electro Shield System (ESS). Our teams collaborate with authorities in over 10 countries to create new marine protected areas and improve the already existing ones to help conserve species and habitats. WWF has partnered with the James Cook University to develop A Practical Guide to the Effective Design and Management of MPAs for Sharks and Rays. This tool provides practical information and the best available science on effective spatial protection for marine authorities.
Marine tourism is often the only direct benefit coastal communities can gain from shark and ray populations beyond fishing. Our teams in Mexico, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Mediterranean Sea apply this approach. WWF has also collaborated with The Manta Trust and Project AWARE to produce the Responsible Shark and Ray Tourism: A Guide to Best Practice. The Guide contains practical tools and guidance on best practises that can be used by operators, NGOs and local communities to ensure that marine tourism benefits both people and nature.
While progress toward improving management in existing fisheries that take sharks has been slow at the national level, there has been a breakthrough in trying to ensure that the international trade is conducted sustainably. If a species is listed on CITES Appendix II, the animals and products from them cannot be exported unless it can be shown that their exports will not affect the survival of these species in the wild.
Following successful campaigns by WWF, TRAFFIC, and other like-minded organisations in 2013, 2016, and 2022, about 90% of internationally traded shark and ray species got listed on CITES Appendix II. In total, almost 150 different species are currently listed. The listings cover some of the most commercially valuable species, and will now act as a motivation for shark fishing nations to accelerate fisheries improvements. Listed species include the oceanic whitetip, silky and thresher sharks, all hammerhead sharks, many reef sharks, the blue shark, as well as manta and devil rays.
Wildlife trade experts TRAFFIC provide deep insights into the global trade of shark and ray products, and seek to introduce traceability systems as the backbone of sustainability.
WWF and TRAFFIC continue to monitor the trade in CITES-listed species to ensure that credible and transparent sustainability assessments are undertaken, and that importing nations comply with CITES permit controls to prevent shark fin, shark meat, and manta gill plates being imported illegally.
Sharks are sought for fins, meat, leather, liver oil and cartilage, with the demand for shark meat as concerning as the more publicized pursuit of their fins. According to FAO statistics, the average declared value of global shark fin imports from 2000 to 2011 was nearly US$378 million per year. Shark meat is more likely to be consumed locally, but the average declared value of shark meat products in the same time frame was still nearly US$240 million a year.
The demand for shark fins in Asia, and shark meat more globally, are the biggest factors driving overfishing and population declines. In Hong Kong, the centre of the fin trade, shark fin soup is a luxury item served at wedding banquets and other celebrations; it symbolizes power, wealth and generosity. Meanwhile on the Chinese mainland, the gill plates of manta rays and devil rays are used to make a detoxifying health tonic.
While the demand for shark, ray and skate meat isn’t given as much attention as shark fin, the international demand for these products has more than doubled since the early 1990s, and the sheer volume from fisheries that are not well managed is a serious threat to the survival of these species. We have more than 10 years of experience in reducing the unsustainable consumption of shark fin in key Asian markets, and are expanding the scope of our work to understand and tackle major markets for shark and ray meat.