Sonja Fordham directed Ocean Conservancy’s shark conservation work from 1991 to 2009. She’s now based just up the block from our DC headquarters, running Shark Advocates International, a non-profit project of The Ocean Foundation. Sonja is live-tweeting during several Shark Week programs; follow @SharkAdvocates for conservation tidbits and more ideas for helping sharks of all shapes and sizes.
The 30th anniversary of Shark Week is coming to a close and it’s time for some conservation updates on featured species.
Let’s start with the good news: the unrivaled darlings of Shark Week—(great) white sharks—are doing pretty well, at least in the U.S. Longtime members may recall how Ocean Conservancy (then the Center for Marine Conservation) took the lead in securing white shark protections off both sides of the country back in the 1990s. Fast forward two decades and the resulting prohibitions on landing, in concert with other conservation measures, appear to be working. Rebounding white shark populations are being documented in the Atlantic and Pacific, and represent rare shark conservation success stories.
Unfortunately, we now face a very different situation with another big, fast shark also featured in this week’s programming: the shortfin mako. Makos are closely related to white sharks, but (so far) have received much less love from the public. They are sought, however, for their meat and fins, as well as for fun. Makos are highly migratory; single populations are fished by many countries, most of which impose no catch limits. A population assessment published since Shark Week 2017 reveals that shortfin makos in the North Atlantic are being seriously overfished, and reductions in catches are needed to repair the damage. The US ranks 4th among North Atlantic mako fishing nations and is currently taking public comment on a proposal to strengthen its conservation measures. Citizen support is key to prompting the US to heed scientific advice and lead other countries to do the same, before it’s too late.
Moving closer to shore, hammerheads were a part of at least one show this week. This spotlight coincides nicely with an ongoing discussion about strengthening Florida’s restrictions on shore-based shark fishing to address concern over mishandling, targeting and chumming. Of particular concern are large hammerhead species, like the great and scalloped hammerheads. Although large hammerheads are a prohibited species in Florida, they are exceptionally sensitive to the physiological stress of capture, and often die even if released. New state measures under consideration could improve fishing and handling practices and, in turn, increase the survival rate of hammerheads (while also guarding the safety of anglers and beachgoers). Have your say by the end of summer.
This year, Shark Week also highlighted shark research in Cuba. Collaboration among ocean experts from Cuba and the US continues to yield exciting results for all kinds of marine species. In recent years, Cuba has stepped up its engagement in shark conservation, completing a National Plan of Action, engaging in international tagging studies and working with the US and others to strengthen an international ban on shark finning. This summer, the IUCN Shark Specialist Group (SSG) released a progress report on its global strategy for the conservation of sawfishes—the world’s most endangered “sharks.” In it, the SSG spotlights Cuba as a priority country for study and protection of Critically Endangered smalltooth sawfish. Researchers are eager to better document the species in Cuban waters while conservationists are working to encourage the strictest legal protections. You can help by encouraging US policy makers to support continued cooperation with Cuba with respect to marine science and protection.
There’s also important update on a big, amazing species featured during last year’s Shark Week: the Greenland shark. You might recall this species made big news in 2016 when scientists estimated it can live for roughly 400 years and doesn’t begin reproducing until about age 150! Those revelations prompted an examination into the species’ conservation status and management needs by scientists associated with the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO). That report has just been released. In it, experts recommend an international ban on the landing of Greenland sharks, and work to reduce incidental mortality, in line with protections set by other international fishery management organizations for vulnerable shark species (like bigeye threshers, oceanic whitetips, and silky sharks). You can learn more from this factsheet and by following the Shark League coalition on Twitter (#RespectYourElders). You can help by urging North Atlantic governments (including the US, Canada, and the EU) to propose Greenland shark protections at the annual meeting of NAFO in September.
No Shark Week conservation blog would be complete without a warning about the serious overfishing that threatens myriad species that are rarely if ever profiled on television, presumably due to a perceived lack of charisma. These include, most notably, the highly threatened “flat sharks”—not just sawfishes, but guitarfishes, wedgefishes, devil rays and many skates. Follow #FlatSharkFriday on Twitter to keep up with opportunities to help.
As far as the next decade of Shark Week is concerned, it would be good to see the associated conservation messaging evolve beyond the basic idea that many sharks are in trouble to include concrete solutions that viewers can promote. While it’s still exciting to see mention of conservation initiatives during Shark Week, effective shark conservation policies depend on people in many countries demanding specific actions all year long.
Thank you for your interest in these vulnerable animals and the steps we can take to improve their future.