New programme aims to protect Pacific sharks and preserve cultural heritage

The great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) lives in most cool coastal waters around the world. The great white is the largest predatory fish on Earth and can grow up to an average of 4.6 metres in length. The IUCN Red List of Endangered Species lists the great white as Threatened.  © Wildlife Pictures/Jêrome Mallefet / WWF.

Samoa (September 2) – A programme to support Pacific Island governments in managing and conserving their shark and ray populations was launched at the Third International Conference of the United Nations Small Island Developing States in Apia, Samoa.

The Pacific Shark Heritage Programme, an initiative that will ensure that shark and ray species are managed under viable long-term strategies in Pacific waters, is a joint effort by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring organisation. The aim of the Programme is to work with governments throughout the Pacific region to assist them in sustainably managing their shark and ray populations while safeguarding cultural history of the Pacific Island nations.

In officiating over the launch, Michael Donoghue, Threatened & Migratory Species Adviser of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, highlighted that the Pacific Shark Heritage Programme will offer practical solutions and assistance to both fisheries management and shark-based eco-tourism by developing truly sustainable strategies. This will ensure that Pacific Island nations and communities benefit from careful stewardship of their natural resources. Mr Donoghue stated: “SPREP is delighted to be partnering with WWF in this initiative. We have become increasingly concerned at the rapid decline in the abundance of many species of sharks and rays in the Pacific Islands region. SPREP believes fisheries management agencies must give this issue a higher priority. Sharks are a vital component of both pelagic and coastal ecosystems, and their over-exploitation has disrupted trophic relationships and affected these ecosystems in a multitude of ways,  SPREP has been working with CITES and the Convention for Migratory Species (CMS) to promote conservation measures. The CMS focal point for Oceania, Fiji, has just proposed the listing of 10 species of rays on the CMS Appendices, which SPREP is supporting. We urgently need to convince fishing nations that the short-term gains from shark fins are heavily outweighed by the long-term damage caused. We shall be exploring all avenues with WWF and other partners to try to restore the balance.”

The programme will produce replicable and practical ways to evaluate shark and ray populations which will help in developing long-term management strategies for these iconic species.

Another key goal of this initiative is to protect the traditional maritime histories of the many diverse island communities throughout the region. Ian Campbell from WWF’s Global Shark team, who launched the Programme said:

“There are two main objectives we are seeking to achieve as part of this work. The first is to stop the severe decline of shark and ray populations throughout the Pacific and around the world. The second, equally important issue is to ensure the unique island cultures of fragile coastal states is protected and preserved for future generations. As part of the launch of this initiative we have produced a book “Shark Gods of the Pacific” which documents the legends and fables of sharks and rays from Pacific Island countries.”

In 2014, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Shark Specialist Group produced a report covering over 1000 shark and ray species.

The main findings of the IUCN report are:

  • There is a severe lack of data on sharks and rays with no information for nearly half of all the species assessed.
  • Almost a quarter of all sharks and rays are threatened with extinction.
  • Overfishing and habitat loss are the biggest threats to sharks and rays.

Campbell continued, “The work we are planning to undertake is crucial not only to plug shortfalls in the understanding of shark populations and to protect threatened species like the thresher shark or the giant devil ray, but also to ensure sharks & rays can continue to play their critical role in thriving fisheries & the cultural heritage of coastal communities.Even sharks that may seem abundant throughout the Pacific, such as the blacktip, whitetip and grey reef sharks as well as bull sharks are near threatened, while manta ray populations are classed as vulnerable. Without restoring the balance of shark and ray populations, then there may never be new stories to pass down through the generations.”

There are a number of international conservation treaties that include measures covering sharks and rays including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna & Flora (CITES), an international agreement to ensure trade in specimens of wild animals & plants does not threaten their survival. On September 14th, special protection measures covering the trade in commercially caught sharks and rays come into force.

Glenn Sant, TRAFFIC’s Fisheries Trade Programme Leader said: “The serious decline in certain shark species, a direct result of being fished for their fins, meat and other products, led to the 180 countries who have signed up to CITES listing these species on Appendix II of the Convention. This means that trade in their products can only occur if legal and, ultimately, sustainable. It’s critical to small island nations, such as those in the Pacific, that these species are maintained at a level where they can fulfil their role in the cultural and ecosystem landscape of the region. For this to occur TRAFFIC & WWF will assist in linking work associated with the responsible management, trade and consumption of shark and ray products. Trade in shark products is a globalised industry, and enabling change is critical to the heritage of sharks in the Pacific.”


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