Despite their fierce image as toothy monsters of the deep, sharks are more threatened than threatening these days. Worldwide, 21 percent are classified as threatened, according to the latest assessment of the IUCN Red List.
When it comes to the Mediterranean, the situation is worse – 42 percent are under threat. If you single out the large oceanic species such as the Blue Shark or the Big Eye Thresher Shark, things are nothing less then dire – a shocking 58 percent are classed as threatened.
“The problem with this species is overfishing, whether as by-catch, for their fins or their meat,” says Sarah Fowler, Chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group and Policy Director of the Shark Alliance. “Sharks are long-lived and don’t have many young so their population only grows at a very slow rate.”
The Shark Alliance, a coalition of 57 conservation, scientific and recreational organisations, is leading the fight for a better deal for these large fish. As things stand, fishing for sharks and rays is mainly unregulated, especially in Europe, and the few catch limits that do exist are rarely complied with.
But all is not doom and gloom. In December the European Commission is due to publish its long-awaited Plan of Action on sharks, with European fisheries ministers expected to respond early next year.
December should also see negotiations to set EU fishing limits for 2009 with quotas expected for critically endangered species such as the spiny dogfish and porbeagle sharks for the first time.
“There is a good chance the EU will go from no protection to providing good protection,” says Sonja Fordham, Deputy Chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group. “It’s a dire situation for sharks so we need to start doing something straight away.”
Sharks still suffer from an image problem among the general public compared with more cuddly species. “It’s not just because people worry sharks may kill them, but also because fishermen see them as pests who may disrupt their gear,” says Dr Fordham.
However some progress has been made in improving the public perception of this species in recent years. “Lots of people, especially children, are fascinated by sharks,” she adds, “but we really need to step up the pace if we are going to avoid losing more species.”