The results of a recent study published in Conservation Biology paints a disturbing picture of ongoing decline of sharks in the Pacific Ocean. Now, to many who are familiar with the subject of shark finning and overfishing, this does not necessarily sound, unfortunately, like anything new - it is what many of us have been fighting about for some time. However, it’s an important report because it covers a wide period of time, has specific numbers, and notes that some areas in shark conservation that receive considerable public support may not be as effective as hoped.
The study by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in New Caledonia, headed up by Dr. Shelley Clark, covers a fifteen-year period, examining catch records from several fisheries throughout the Pacific, and shows significant declines in the catch rates for blue, mako, oceanic whitetip sharks, along with declining average size in oceanic whitetip and silky sharks (following the same fate of tuna and billfish). These are all, basically, pelagic or open water sharks that operate outside of most national ocean boundaries in international waters.
Oceanic whitetips were shown to be declining annually at a rate of 17%. Based on just that number alone, that would mean that oceanic whitetips in Pacific waters have 5-6 years left. Unfortunately, that could be accelerated because of how animal populations can reach a "tipping point" where their declining numbers can no longer be supported by any means of natural reproduction and the population suddenly collapses and they plummet to oblivion.
Blue sharks were also reported to be declining at a rate of 5% in the North Pacific. Blue sharks are a bit more abundant and more productive, but they, along with the oceanic whitetip are highly sought after by commercial shark fishing operations. Physically, these two species have particularly large pectoral fins so, quite literally, fishermen get more bang for the buck with a shark with large fins, in open international waters and, at least with the blue shark, are slightly more abundant.
The New Caledonia study goes on to report that, in international waters, shark fishing for fins or the entire carcass, has proved to be a difficult practice to regulate due to insufficient enforcement, complex laws regarding fin-to-carcass ratios (the result of compromises by international agencies to commercial interests), and no follow-through enforcement or prosecution at the domestic level. And then there is the impact of illegal fishing or longline fishing where numbers of sharks are caught but were not necessarily targeted. Time and time again, we find that laws or regulations that are in place mean nothing if there is insufficient enforcement and prosecution. Pardon the pun, but too often the laws have no teeth.
As reported in a recent press release, Sonja Fordham, president of Shark Advocates International, had this to say about the report and the current state of regulations, "These findings underscore conservationists’ messages that most finning bans are not properly enforced, and alone are not sufficient to reverse shark population declines. Prohibitions on at-sea removal of shark fins not only bolster finning ban enforcement, but also facilitate collection of species-specific fisheries data that are key to refining population assessments and informing the establishment of urgently needed shark catch limits."
This is why it is critical for all shark conservationists to focus some of their interest, energy, and passion into prodding and supporting those organizations that work on behalf of sharks in the international arena. It may seem a bit removed and you may feel a bit ineffectual compared to regional efforts like state or local shark finning or fishing bans, but, remember, most of the ocean is in international jurisdiction. If we do not pressure these worldwide agencies to act responsibly, based on current scientific information, then we will find ourselves putting band aids on our local waters, while the open oceans are hemorrhaging badly.