We frequently hear, in scientific publications and emotive news articles, about the dire state of the world’s shark populations. And rightly so. With an estimated 100 million individuals killed in targeted and by-catch fisheries every year and one quarter of all known species threatened with extinction, sharks and their relatives (Class Chondrichthyes) are one of the world’s most imperilled species groups.
It is well-known that the elevated extinction risk of sharks is a product of rapid global increases in fishing mortality, coupled with conservative life-history traits that make most shark species particularly vulnerable to overfishing.
“As a region rich in shark species and a focal point for some of the world’s largest shark and ray fishing and trading activity, South East Asia is a global priority for shark and ray conservation.”
However, developing and implementing conservation strategies for effectively reducing shark fishing mortality is incredibly challenging for several practical and ethical reasons. In particular: complex habitat and population dynamics, diverse species, limited post-catch survivability, difficultly identifying products in trade, and conflicting human uses and values.
As a region rich in shark species and a focal point for some of the world’s largest shark and ray fishing and trading activity, South East Asia is a global priority for shark and ray conservation. Within the region, several committed organisations and individuals strive to ensure protection and sustainable management of sharks, for the long-term benefit of ecosystems and people.
Last month, at the 5th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC5), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation (CCEF) co-convened a symposium to showcase how several dedicated conservation practitioners in South East Asia are developing nuanced, practical, and ethical interventions to save sharks. In spite of the challenges faced, several projects are making a splash in defending some of the world’s most ancient and ecologically important ocean predators:
Muhammad Ichsan from WCS is working with fishing communities in Aceh Province, Indonesia, to improve protection of critical habitat for threatened hammerhead sharks and wedgefish. By collaborating with the local government and Panglima Laot (a traditional fisheries institution, which translates to ‘Commander of the Sea’), Ichsan and his team have identified areas of high incidental catch of juvenile hammerheads and wedgefish, indicating the presence of a nursery ground.
“Our long-term aim is to restrict the use of unselective and destructive fishing gears, such as bottom trawls, and improve live release of threatened and protected species,” said Muhammad Ichsan.
He is now working with local stakeholders to develop a 45,000 hectare marine protected areas, with no-take zones and fisheries regulations that will help fishers to better target high-value fisheries resources, such as shrimp and snapper, while reducing fishing mortality of priority shark species.
According to Ichsan, “Our long-term aim is to restrict the use of unselective and destructive fishing gears, such as bottom trawls, and improve live release of threatened and protected species, while also promoting traditional and cultural use rights and customary law.”
Angelique Songco — also known as ‘Mama Ranger’ — from Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the Philippines also reflected on how protected area management has helped to secure one of the highest known densities of whitetip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus) in the world.
“We believe that vigilant law enforcement and intensified public outreach are the main factors that led to the successful conservation of sharks in our park,” observed Angelique. Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park remains the only purely marine UNESCO World Heritage site in Southeast Asia today.
Benaya Simeon is a Sharks and Rays Officer for the WCS Indonesia Program. Benaya and her colleagues are using four and a half years of shark landings data, alongside data from socioeconomic surveys and focus group discussions, to understand shark fishery dependency and livelihood diversification options in a targeted shark fishery in Lombok, Indonesia.
They have found that livelihood diversification for people in the shark industry is quite difficult to achieve, due to the high profitability of the shark fishery, which — right now — is almost entirely legal. Instead, WCS Indonesia has focused its efforts on trying to make the fishery more sustainable while also reducing barriers to livelihood diversification should fishers wish to move to another industry.
“Results suggest that management measures focusing on fishing effort controls, gear restrictions and modifications, and spatio-temporal closures could have significant benefits for the conservation of shark species.”
To inform fisheries management, WCS is using landings data to understand which fishing behaviours — such as fishing grounds visited and gear types used — are associated with higher catch rates of threatened and protected species. Results suggest that management measures focusing on fishing effort controls, gear restrictions and modifications, and spatio-temporal closures could have significant benefits for the conservation of shark species, and may help to improve the overall sustainability of the fishery.
Benaya and her team are now working with the local community to develop a shark fishers cooperative that will give them with a united voice in management decision making. They are also working with provincial- and national-level government to build these findings into fisheries management policy and plans for CITES implementation.
They are likewise expanding the capacity of a local tourism cooperative and microfinance institute to increase the profitability of non-shark-related industries. The additional capacity will also provide capital, skills, and resources for people wishing to change their livelihoods. We feel supporting these transitions will become increasingly important as catch declines in the future and/or the fishery becomes increasingly regulated.
As Benaya noted, “Building trust within the local community and developing strong relationships with village leaders and the provincial government have been crucial to continuing our conservation work during a time of increasing regulation and uncertainty for the fishers.”
“Building trust within the local community and developing strong relationships with village leaders and the provincial government have been crucial to continuing our conservation work.”
Peni Lestari, a socio-economic specialist for the WCS Indonesia marine team emphasized that “to manage sharks and rays sustainably, we need to involve fishers in the management of shark and ray fisheries instead of pushing them out of the industry.”
Dr. Mudjekeewis Santos from the National Fisheries Research and Development Institute in The Philippines explored how he and his team are using DNA Forensics for monitoring of trade and providing species identification to law enforcement agencies. Some key protected species identified in trade include manta and devil rays, thresher sharks, silky sharks and great white sharks. Several shipments have been confiscated and court cases filed against illegal traders.
“Our experiences illustrate the benefits of DNA barcoding for trade monitoring, traceability and implementing CITES,” observed Dr. Mudjekeewis, “but there is still some work to do on training, sample collection protocols, and refinement of knowledge management systems.”
Naomi Clark-Shen has been conducting research in to shark and ray imports in Singapore: the world’s second largest importer and re-exporter of fins by value, and a major consumer of shark and ray meat. In particular, she has been looking across fresh imports from regional fisheries — looking at the supply chain and traceability for fresh and processed products.
Although her results are still preliminary, they highlighted the important role of seafood consumers, both in the region and globally, in driving change within the shark fishing industry. “We need to encourage consumers to question where their seafood comes from, to in turn drive stronger labelling and traceability of fisheries products in Singapore, and worldwide,” she said.
“Stricter protection for large, slow-growing vulnerable species will likely be needed going forwards, while smaller and faster growing species require sustainable fisheries management in both targeted and by-catch fisheries.”
This is also an important consideration for seafood consumers in European and US markets. While Europe and the US are not major direct consumer of shark and ray products, other global fisheries industries, such as tuna and shrimp, play a major role in shark mortality through by-catch. In the global movement to protect sharks, it is increasingly important that all seafood consumers are aware of their fisheries footprint, and demand that seafood companies adopt sustainable practices for reducing mortality of threatened and protected species.
Overall, while it is still early days for shark conservation, and the global situation remains challenging, there are glimmers of hope for practical, effective conservation interventions in South East Asia. It is increasingly clear that a diversity of approaches is going to be required if we are to effectively save sharks.
These approaches need to target different levels of the shark trade chain, and be adapted towards different species, threats, and socio-economic contexts. Stricter protection for large, slow-growing vulnerable species will likely be needed going forwards, while smaller and faster growing species require sustainable fisheries management in both targeted and by-catch fisheries.
Finally, given the widely differing human uses and values for sharks, and the inevitable impacts of shark conservation on humans, there is high potential for conservation conflicts.
As these case studies highlight, working with different institutions and stakeholder groups — from fishers and traders to government and enforcers — and creating dialogue and explicit recognition of competing values and trade-offs, is essential for developing workable, shared solutions.
This article was originally published on Medium.com