Meet the shark’s advocate

Although they spark fear in many people, sharks in fact have more reasons to be afraid of people. Deputy-Chair of IUCN Shark Specialist Group, Sonja Fordham, has devoted her life and career to protecting sharks from irresponsible human activity and to securing a better future for the much-maligned creatures. Her work has focused on promoting sound shark fishing limits and bans on the wasteful practice of 'finning' – slicing off a shark’s valuable fins and discarding the body at sea.

Sonja Fordham, IUCN/SSC Shark Specialist Group

Jeremy Stafford Deitsch
Basking shark

Strong demand for shark products, particularly meat and fins (for shark fin soup) continues to drive international trade and serious depletion of many shark species around the world. Yet, restrictions on international trade are in place for only three shark species – basking, whale and white sharks – and very few shark fisheries around the world are currently well-managed.

“Nearly two decades ago, my focus shifted from marine mammals to sharks when I was hired by the Center for Marine Conservation and came to learn about the disparity in public support and protections between the two groups of animals, both of which are generally slow growing and vulnerable to overexploitation. At the time, sharks were virtually unprotected from overfishing and finning. Since then, the public’s perception of sharks has vastly improved and the number of shark fishing and trade limits has dramatically increased. Still, more work and a faster pace of advancement are needed to ensure that these remarkable fish survive and thrive.”

As part of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group since 1991, Sonja Fordham is aware of the threats facing sharks and the urgent need for action. At the 1994 Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), she helped ensure the adoption of a groundbreaking Resolution on sharks that started a chain of advances in international shark conservation. One such step was the 1999 United Nations International Plan of Action (IPOA) for Sharks. Sonja was a leading proponent of the Shark IPOA and has worked ever since for its implementation through the world’s regional fisheries bodies and global wildlife treaties.

Sonja has maintained a particular focus on fishing and trade limits for spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias) and porbeagle sharks (Lamna nasus), which are sought around the globe primarily to satisfy European demand for their meat. Both species are classified by IUCN as Endangered in the Northwest Atlantic, Critically Endangered in the Northeast Atlantic and Vulnerable globally and have been proposed for a second time by Germany (and now the entire European Community and Palau) for listing under CITES Appendix II. Such action would prompt measures to monitor trade in the species and ensure that exports do not pose a threat to wild populations.

Sonja has also been a longtime advocate of safeguards for hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks, particularly in US waters. The US and Palau are proposing these and several “look alike” species for listing under CITES Appendix II through two proposals. Most valuable for their fins, scalloped hammerheads are listed by IUCN as Endangered globally while oceanic whitetips sharks are categorized as Critically Endangered in the Northwest and Central Atlantic Ocean and globally Vulnerable.

Sonja has attended every CITES meeting since 1994 and has regularly participated in the Shark Working Group CITES Animals Committee, helping to identify species of particular concern and develop recommendations for priority shark conservation actions on a global scale. In 2006, after many years of directing shark conservation policy work at Ocean Conservancy in Washington, DC, Sonja turned her focus to Europe, moving to Brussels where she helped launch and develop the Shark Alliance, a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

At the CITES conference taking place until March 25 in Doha, Qatar, Sonja will be part of the IUCN delegation. The CITES Parties will make important decisions about the regulation of international trade in numerous species, including sharks.

"My role at this CITES conference, as a representative of IUCN, is to provide technical information associated with the latest Animals Committee report on sharks and an unprecedented number of proposals to list sharks under Appendix II. I am hopeful that my expertise will help IUCN convey key points of information that will in turn help the CITES Parties make informed decisions with respect to sharks and the proposals before them."

In addition to her work with IUCN and various NGOs, Sonja serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the American Elasmobranch Society (the world’s largest society of shark and ray scientists) and several shark and skate fishery management advisory panels. She was named Environmental Hero of 2000 by the US Department of Commerce and received the Peter Benchley Shark Conservation Award in 2007. She has Finnish and American nationality and currently lives in Belgium.

The IUCN Shark Specialist Group has been working since its 1991 inception to assess all of the world’s sharks as well as closely related skates, rays, sawfish and chimaeras according to the criteria of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. A full Shark Specialist Group Red List report is due to be published in the coming months.

Learn more: IUCN/SSC Shark Specialist Group

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