Shark Scientists Agree: Shark Fishing Is OK (Sometimes)

New research finds that sustainable shark fisheries are possible, if few and far between.
(Photo: Jim Abernethy/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)
Feb 16, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Shark fishing is the worst possible thing for endangered oceanic predators and should be banned, right?

Well, maybe not. While it’s true that about 24 percent of shark species and their relatives face extinction, a new survey of shark scientists reveals that outright bans might not always be the right path to saving all sharks. According to a paper published this week in the journal Conservation Biology, 90 percent of 102 shark scientists that answered survey questions agreed that the most important shark conservation tools aren’t bans. The goal, they said, should be sustainable fishing.

That may contradict some of the current messages about shark conservation, which often call for outright bans on all shark trade regardless of species. “There are some people saying there’s no such thing as a sustainable shark fishery,” said David Shiffman, the study’s lead author and a University of Miami shark researcher, who tweets under the name @WhySharksMatter. “That does not seem to be supported by the expert opinions of the world’s shark researchers.”

Shiffman said the survey revealed that the majority of the world’s shark fisheries aren’t sustainable, but the ones that are have a few things in common. “They’re all relatively small-bodied sharks, they grow relatively fast, and they live in coastal populations where there’s more resources that can support a larger population.” He pointed to the blacktip shark fishery in the Southeastern United States as an example.

Sustainable shark fisheries have one other important factor in common: They occur in countries that have a strong fisheries management infrastructure that can help guarantee that catches are legal and quotas are met.

But the survey also revealed that shark scientists do not feel that most fisheries are run in a sustainable manner. “At the very least there are many examples of unsustainable, poorly managed shark fisheries in the world today and throughout the recent past,” Shiffman said. “There are many that take place in open water or in nations that don’t have fisheries management infrastructure.” Other fisheries, he said, target larger shark species that take many years to grow to maturity and reproduce and even then produce very few young.

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Could scientists help to turn all of this around? The survey also revealed an overwhelming attitude among shark scientists that they should directly advocate for shark conservation. That puts shark scientists rather outside the norm among their colleagues. “The overwhelming majority of ecologists believe that scientists do the science and advocates do the advocacy and never the twain shall meet,” Shiffman said. “The majority of our respondents felt that scientists know this stuff the best, and we care about the outcome, therefore we have the right and a responsibility to get involved directly by talking to policy makers or conservation groups or public education efforts.”

Top conservation organizations this week also announced that they will be depending on shark scientists to come up with new shark conservation policies for the next decade and beyond. A report released Monday detailed a global strategy to protect the world’s sharks and related species through 2025. The strategy outlines an “urgent need” for “science-based catch limits” on shark and ray fishing and trade to tackle overfishing and ensure sustainability for all species.

“Some shark and ray populations are capable of supporting fisheries in the long term,” Ali Hood, director of conservation for Shark Trust, said in a statement. She called sustainable use a “pragmatic approach” that could benefit people’s livelihoods and cultures while protecting the natural world.

Shiffman said he hoped his paper would inspire shark researchers and shark advocates to communicate with each other more. “We see a lot of newer, smaller nonprofits saying things that are not correct that could be resolved by talking to scientists, and we see a lot of distrust from scientists toward these groups which could be resolved if maybe they worked together a little more on common goals,” he said. “A lot of times it’s just yelling past each other. That doesn’t help anyone.”