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Shocking shark mortality rates are on the rise worldwide

Sharks have endured for over 400 million years, surviving five mass extinctions and diversifying into numerous forms. Today, however, sharks face a dire situation: they are among the world’s most threatened species. This is primarily due to overexploitation and the spread of wasteful finning practices.

Governments worldwide have attempted to mitigate this crisis by introducing various regulations to decrease shark catch and finning. Despite these efforts, a new global assessment has revealed that while the regulations are sometimes effective, they have not been sufficient to reverse the trend of increasing shark mortality.

Focus of the study

An international team including researchers from Dalhousie University, UC Santa Barbara, and The Nature Conservancy conducted a thorough investigation into shark mortality trends. 

The experts analyzed shark catches from 2012 to 2019 across 150 fishing countries and the high seas, covering a period marked by the implementation of numerous conservation measures. Their dataset encompassed an estimated 1.1 billion sharks caught globally.

Shocking results

The analysis revealed that total shark fishing mortality rose from 76 million to 80 million sharks per year, despite a more than tenfold increase in anti-finning legislation. 

Over 30% of these catches involved species currently threatened with extinction, pushing the global mortality estimate to 101 million sharks in 2019.

A global problem of staggering proportions

Study senior author Darcy Bradley is an adjunct faculty member at UC Santa Barbara and a scientist with the Nature Conservancy in California. 

“The unsustainable fishing of sharks is a global problem of staggering proportions that could eventually lead to the extinction of some of our planet’s most ancient and revered species,” said Bradley. “We found that despite myriad regulations intended to curb shark overfishing, the total number of sharks being killed by fisheries each year is not decreasing. If anything, it’s slightly increasing.”

Too many sharks are still dying

While finning prohibitions likely reduced shark finning at sea, the team found that these regulations had little effect on mortality overall. 

“We show that widespread legislation designed to prevent shark finning was successful in addressing this wasteful practice but did not reduce mortality overall,” said study lead author Boris Worm, a research professor in the Department of Biology at Dalhousie University. “Too many sharks are still dying; this is especially worrisome for threatened species such as hammerheads.”

“Complete bans on shark fishing, through protective measures such as shark sanctuaries can be successful, highlighting an opportunity to prioritize these and other area-based conservation measures,” said Bradley.

Rising demand for shark meat

“We have seen the demand for shark fins decreasing and the demand for shark meat increasing, with Brazil and Italy being the main consumers. Because shark meat is a relatively cheap substitute for other types of fish, there is considerable mislabeling, making some consumers eat shark meat without their knowledge,” said study co-author Leonardo Feitosa, a shark biologist at UC Santa Barbara.

“Effective conservation actions for sharks are often impeded by lack of community-based awareness and stewardship projects,” said study co-author Nidhi D’Costa, a shark researcher at Dalhousie. “This is especially crucial in countries where small-scale artisanal fisheries are a major driver of shark mortality.”

Study implications 

The team emphasizes the need for more specific measures targeting shark mortality. Prohibiting fishing in certain areas and requiring fishers to release accidentally caught vulnerable species are among the recommended strategies. 

“Our analysis highlights the need for improved transparency and reporting requirements,” said Sara Orofino, a data analyst at UC Santa Barbara. “Shark catches are often self-reported, aggregated into broad groups, and crucial information on discarding practices is often lacking. Accurate, comprehensive, and accessible data are critical to effectively evaluate how well regulations are working in safeguarding sharks and other threatened species.”

The study is published in the journal Science

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