WWF, 13 May 2021 – WWF urges all states fishing for tuna to implement a set of urgently needed measures – including 100% observer coverage on all industrial fishing vessels by 2030 and recovery plans for all critically endangered and endangered oceanic sharks and rays by 2026 – in order to prevent extinctions and restore heavily depleted populations of pelagic sharks and rays.

A recent study revealed that global populations of open ocean sharks and rays have declined by 71% since the 1970s due to the 18-fold increase in relative fishing pressure. Half of all the 31 species of oceanic sharks and rays are now either critically endangered or endangered, according to the IUCN Red List

In response, WWF is calling on the contracting parties of regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) for tuna to take specific, urgent actions to prevent extinctions and allow for recovery of these dangerously depleted but very important species.

Up to 100 million sharks are fished annually, with populations of some oceanic species reduced by over 95% as a result of overfishing. Tuna RFMO contracting parties have a disproportionately large role to play in safeguarding the health of oceanic shark and ray populations. These states – as members of the UN and FAO, and parties to CBD [Convention on Biological Diversity] and CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species] – have also committed to and are bound by these global frameworks on sustainable development, fisheries, biodiversity, and international trade. 

Yet these global commitments are not being fulfilled (e.g. neither CBD Aichi Target 6 nor UN’s SDG 14.4 were achieved by 2020) and the existing conservation and management measures for oceanic sharks and rays are not sufficient to stop the ongoing declines.

An oceanic whitetip shark (foreground) and other sharks before auction at the Negombo fish market, Sri Lanka. Photo: WWF/Andy Cornish
An oceanic whitetip shark (foreground) and other sharks before auction at the Negombo fish market, Sri Lanka. Photo: WWF/Andy Cornish.

Dr Andy Cornish, the leader of WWF’s global shark and ray conservation program, said: “Tuna RFMOs and the states they unite continue failing oceanic sharks and rays. For far too long they have been complacent about managing these increasingly threatened animals, not paying enough attention to population trends and failing to regulate their catches until populations are in freefall. 

“We need a complete overhaul of how these species are managed by the tuna RFMOs, starting with recovering the most endangered species and restoring their roles in the ecosystem.”

To prevent extinctions of pelagic sharks and rays in the short term and to recover their populations in the long term, WWF calls on the contracting parties of the four major tuna RFMOs to urgently implement a set of science-based measures in addition to those already in place:

  • increase independent fisheries observer coverage to 100% on all industrial vessels by 2030
  • introduce recovery plans for all species of globally critically endangered oceanic sharks and rays by 2023, and for the endangered ones by 2026
  • develop plans to minimise interactions between fishing gear and sharks and rays, and introduce measures to reduce mortality if interactions do occur
  • support spatial protection research and identification of critical habitats in the high seas
  • develop or update national and regional plans of action – sharks
  • implement a “fins naturally attached” policy as the only method to ensure proper catch accounting as well as compliance with shark retention measures
  • develop approaches to evaluate implementation and effectiveness of bycatch measures and share these across all tuna RFMOs
  • require tuna RFMOs to conduct CITES NDFs (non-detriment findings) for any species listed in Appendix II that the contracting parties plan to fish and trade products from legally and sustainably
  • enforce the UN international moratorium prohibiting drift nets (46/215) longer than 2.5 km operating in the high seas
  • increase the financial resources available to the tuna RFMOs in order to be able to achieve the above.

In stark contrast to WWF’s call for 100% observer coverage on all industrial vessels, only 5% observer coverage on such vessels is currently required in tuna RFMOs. This is far below what is necessary to be able to collect reliable, species-specific data on any fishery. Such low observer coverage not only impedes science-based management of sharks and rays, but also prevents monitoring and compliance.

Categorising catches of oceanic sharks and rays as “bycatch” by the tuna RFMOs masks the fact that these include targeted fisheries for sharks and rays, and that these animals are often valuable secondary catch in longline and gillnet fisheries.

While oceanic sharks and rays are important for food, livelihoods, tourism, and their ecological roles, recent research is also starting to highlight their importance in planetary-scale processes such as carbon sequestration (when shark and ray carcasses sink to the bottom after death). The inhibition of this process by fishing for these animals and so extracting this “blue carbon” is estimated to have released at least 730 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere since 1950. 

Recovering populations of oceanic sharks and rays – as well as other large marine fishes such as tuna – represents an important nature-based solution to climate change.

For more information, contact Magda Nieduzak, Senior Communications Officer, WWF Sharks: Restoring the Balance, mnieduzak@wwf.org.hk, +852 5334 5544.

Header image of an oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus) by Simon Lorenz/WWF-Hong Kong