The best way to protect heavily depleted shark populations? Stop trying to catch them!

Friday 12 September 2014, Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), Noumea –

It was previously thought that the two heavily depleted pelagic sharks in the Western and Central Pacific, the silky and the oceanic whitetip, were victims of unintended bycatch, but a startling new study from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) shows that sharks are actually being specifically targeted by some tuna longline boats operating in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.

Dr Shelton Harley, Principal Fisheries Scientist in SPC’s Oceanic Fisheries Programme, said, ‘The results of this work were quite unexpected and pretty exciting. We knew that almost all the longline catch of these species was caught by boats targeting tuna but, when we analysed the data collected by independent Pacific Island fisheries observers, we discovered that a lot of the sharks were being caught on special lines with wire traces and shark bait attached to the floats on the longlines. In fact, these lines took up to half of all silky and oceanic whitetip sharks captured on the observed longline trips.’

These findings were heralded as great news by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA). ‘Both of these species are in a bad way and if it was accidental bycatch then it might be a difficult problem to solve, but here we see that the main problem is these appropriately named ‘shark-lines’. FFA members proposed that these shark lines be banned in 2013, but some fishing countries argued that the technique was important for non-shark species.’ said FFA Deputy Director-General, Wez Norris.

The recent study found, however, that no less than thirteen of the top fifteen species caught on these special lines were sharks (mahi mahi (2nd) and wahoo (12th) were the others). In addition to silky (1st) and oceanic white tip sharks (3rd), the list included several other sharks that have been recognised by international organisations as being of concern, such as two species of hammerhead sharks, and tiger sharks.

Based on these findings and confirmation that shark targeting is occurring, Norris indicated that FFA members will again be making the call for the banning of this technique at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meeting to be held in Apia, Samoa,  in December 2014. ‘We call on responsible fishing nations to support this proposal.’

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