Sharks are apex predators that provide a variety of vital functions for maintaining balanced ecosystems. They shape fish communities, ensure species diversity, and even contribute to carbon sequestration by maintaining seagrass meadows. However, they are highly susceptible to anthropogenic threats, such as fishing, particularly in tropical and coastal areas where large communities depend upon fish as their main source of nourishment.
To date, shark, ray, and chimaera species have not been sufficiently considered in the planning and designing of marine protected areas. Now, a team of researchers from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has developed a new framework to change how these species are considered in the design of protected areas and thus safeguard them against extinction.
“We still have so much to learn about many shark, ray, and chimaera species, but unfortunately several studies indicate that many protected areas are failing to adequately meet their needs. However, Important Shark and Ray Areas (ISRAs) will help to identify areas for these species using criteria which have been specifically designed to consider their biological and ecological needs,” said study lead author Ciaran Hyde, a consultant to the IUCN Ocean Team.
“Sharks are a long-lived species: many take a long time to reach sexual maturity and then only give birth to a few young. This makes them particularly susceptible to fishing pressure and with an estimated 37 percent of species with an elevated risk of extinction, they are facing a biodiversity crisis. Results from the ISRA project will inform policy and ensure that areas critical to the survival of sharks, rays, and chimaeras are considered in spatial planning,” added study senior author Rima Jabado, the chair of the IUCN SSC Shark Specialist Group.
The new ISRA criteria were developed through a collaborative effort among shark experts, conservation agencies, and governmental bodies, and include four criteria and seven sub-criteria which take into account the complex biological and ecological needs of sharks, the specific habitats supporting their vital functions and life-history characteristics (such as movement, resting, feeding, reproduction), their distinctive attributes, and the diversity of species within various regions.
“All efforts are being made to ensure that the ISRAs contain the best and most up-to-date place-based information that science can offer to decision makers, managers, and marine users. As the ISRA program proceeds by covering progressively the whole extent of the ocean (and relevant inland water) surface, a very broad involvement of the shark expert community world-wide is expected,” concluded co-author Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, the co-chair of the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Taskforce and Deputy Chair of the IUCN SSC Cetacean Specialist Group.
The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.