June 25, 2009

Conservationists Fight Open Ocean Shark Extinction

A major conservation survey assessed 64 species of open ocean sharks and rays and found that one third of them face extinction, including the great white shark.

The study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported that species hunted on the high seas are particularly at great risk, with over half in danger of extinction.

The IUNC named tuna and swordfish fisheries as the main culprits for their accidental "by-catch" of sharks.

Sharks are also being increasingly targeted themselves to supply growing demand for shark meat and fins. The valuable fins are used for the Asian delicacy of shark fin soup, which is believed to offer great health benefits.

As a lucrative sideline, the fisheries often take part in "finning" whereby they cut off the fins and return the rest of the body to the sea.

The Spanish fleet of surface "Ëœlong-line' fishing boats supposedly only seeks swordfish, but open ocean sharks accounted for 70% of the weight of its catch from 2000 to 2004.

Though there are bans being introduced in the majority of international waters, they are rarely enforced, according to deputy chairwoman Sonja Fordham of the IUCN shark specialist group.

"The vulnerability and lengthy migrations of most open ocean sharks calls for coordinated, international conservation plans," she said.

The IUCN shark specialist group is adjuring governments to limit the amount of sharks and rays being caught based on scientific advice. They also are calling for the protection of critically endangered and endangered species and better monitoring of fisheries as well as an end to all finning.

"There are currently no restrictions on the number of sharks that these fisheries can harvest," Fordham told AFP by phone. "Despite mounting threats, sharks remain virtually unprotected on the high seas."

Scientists are also planning to meet in Denmark to give their recommendations on the Atlantic porbeagle (a predatory shark vulnerable to extinction), which failed to earn protection at the last meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 2007, despite dwindling numbers.

Canada led the opposition to the protective measures with the support of Argentina, New Zealand and some Asian countries.

Europe is the fastest growing market for meat from species such as the porbeagle and the spiny dogfish.

UK Fisheries Minister Huw Irranca-Davies says that more must be done to protect sharks.

"It's essential that we ensure that the practice of cutting off sharks' fins before dumping them back in the sea doesn't happen," he said.

"I'm pleased that the European Union is committed to reviewing its controls, but I feel strongly that we should take action at home now so I'll be working with our fishermen to ensure we enforce our own controls better."

He added, "Making changes now will mean that we can influence negotiations on this issue in Europe and worldwide."

According the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), approximately 100 million sharks are caught each year in commercial and sports fishing, and several species have diminished by more than 80% in the past 10 years alone.


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